Refocusing on high tech R&D will help make America competitive again

Sputnik was only the size of a basketball. But it made clear to the world that America had fallen behind in the Cold War competition with the former Soviet Union. It was the autumn of 1957, the USSR was first to reach Earth’s orbit, and for the U.S., it was a wakeup call. But with determined clarity, we chose to meet the moment.

Adversity demands innovation, and challenges call for creativity — America had both — but what was missing were investments from the federal government. A Golden Age of investments in research and training followed; it didn’t just aim for the moon, it inspired a generation to pursue STEM careers, planted the seeds for game-changing technology innovations across the spectrum of science and engineering, and with it, economic growth. 

But investments haven’t kept pace; we are falling behind again.

Competition is different this time, more countries are investing in research and development (R&D) and competing for talent. As part of a global collaboration, built on shared democratic values, we envision science and technology for a more equitable and prosperous world. But not everyone shares that vision. Falling behind in our innovation and competitive edge now means America could forever lose the ability to lead and shape the future. 

This is a new Sputnik moment. The CHIPS and Science Act — which passed Congress last week and which President Biden intends to sign — will help us meet it. Passed with bipartisan, bicameral support, it’s a giant leap toward keeping American technology innovation on the cutting edge and to ensure cutting-edge industries are made in America — that’s how we remain globally competitive. What it means to Americans is a new era of opportunities — STEM careers and jobs, entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic development.

First, the CHIPS and Science Act will strengthen our economic and national security. Strategic competitors like China have plans to step up their leadership and are deploying the resources and means to make it happen — from R&D to manufacturing.

Consider semiconductors: These tiny marvels were invented in the U.S, but only 12 percent of the world’s supply are made here today. Advances in chips are why your smartphone has millions of times the memory and power as the computer that guided the Apollo mission to the moon. But imported chips could be compromised, supply chains can be disrupted, and if we don’t invest in domestic capabilities now, we will fall behind not only in chip manufacturing capabilities, but also in the technologies that they power. The CHIPS and Science Act will help prevent that while positioning the U.S. to shape tomorrow’s technologies.

Next, American inventions should be made in America. R&D fuels production, production can fuel new R&D — onward and upward, this bill will forge and accelerate positive feedback loops. It can help restore America’s hollowed-out industrial base, and by re-shoring manufacturing, we can unlock a new generation of possibilities to translate research discoveries for real-world, wide-spread impact.

This bill will sharpen our full competitive edge by building American innovation and production together. This is how we get the results that Americans care about — lowering costs, strengthening supply chains, creating new jobs, and building the industries of the future in America.

Third, because the CHIPS and Science Act is an investment in American innovation, it’s an investment in our people and in the jobs that support our families and grow the middle class. Domestic semiconductor research and manufacturing are already creating jobs in Ohio, Arizona and Texas.

There are millions of Americans with the potential to participate in STEM; this bill will help remove barriers to their success. We need training and education in emerging technologies and new pathways to meet people where they are. America’s diversity is our greatest competitive advantage — but only if we enable everyone to participate. This is how we ensure a diverse, inclusive workforce for the jobs of the future so we can remain competitive and why the CHIPS Plus Act is something to celebrate.  

Finally, this bill will help expand the geography of innovation. Developing capacity everywhere — not just on the coasts, not just at the biggest universities — will bolster American competitiveness while growing regional economies from the bottom-up and middle out. Regional technology hubs and innovation engines can empower innovation anywhere and opportunities everywhere.

Sputnik launched a Golden Era of science and technology investments. But that was over 65 years ago. It’s time to meet the next Sputnik moment. By passing the CHIPS and Science Act, we are seizing the opportunity to do so, to unlock a new generation of possibilities and build a better America for the future, for all.

Sethuraman Panchanathan is a computer scientist and engineer and the 15th director of the U.S. National Science Foundation.