When most people consider the history of Microsoft, they may think only of founder Bill Gates. He had the drive and determination to create one of the world’s most legendary companies, as well as the critical computing tools he needed to turn his vision into reality.
But he also had a “silent partner” – the federal government. The tools that Gates relied upon to build his company were in substantial part created through government-funded research and development. As Dr. Peter Lee of Microsoft Research told the New York Times, “If you take any major information technology company today, from Google to Intel to Qualcomm to Apple to Microsoft and beyond, you can trace the core technologies to the rich synergy between federally funded universities and industry research and development.”
For example, Douglas C. Engelbart led a government-funded team of researchers at Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s. He unveiled the first ever computer mouse, decades before it became ubiquitous in homes and offices.
Take a look at the smartphone in your pocket. As economist Mariana Mazzucato has chronicled, the innovations that make it run – like the Internet, lithium batteries, Global Positioning System (GPS) – all came into being in government sponsored laboratories. These inventions are all part of a long line of technologies built through government-funded research and development.
In the 21st century, the pressure to innovate is even greater. The vast majority of countries have moved past the arms race over military power that defined the 20th century; instead, they’re caught up in the “brains race”—trying to recruit and develop the next generation of innovators.
America must play for keeps in this increasingly competitive environment. If we’re going to have any chance at keeping up, we absolutely have to make research and development a top priority.
But these days, Congress too often is focused on political theater at the expense of real solutions. That tradeoff hurts our bottom line for economic growth.
Studies such as Rising Above the Gathering Storm, as well as experts across-the-board, including the National Science Board, recognize that the U.S. must increase investments into basic research to stay ahead. Full stop. Among other conclusions, the Rising Above the Gathering Storm authors found that China has now surpassed the United States as the world’s largest high-technology exporter.
The National Science Board reported this year that by 2022 China will invest more in research and development than the United States. If you care about innovation, jobs, and economic growth, that should be a startling statistic.
But we still have a chance to reverse that trend. The House Science, Space & Technology Committee recently took up the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act.
Unfortunately, the Committee ended up moving forward a version of the FIRST Act that fails to make the kind of investments we need to ensure America’s global economic leadership for generations to come and to create opportunities and tools for the next Bill Gates. Far from matching the kind of increased scientific investment other countries are making, the Committee-approved FIRST Act fails to keep research and development on pace with inflation – much less with other countries.
We still have time to make the needed changes in a bipartisan fashion to improve our position. After the success of the Manhattan Project in World War II, the government supported countless scientific research projects. That kicked into high gear when Americans watched the Soviet Union send the Sputnik 1 into space. In that moment, both sides of the aisle made science one of the highest priorities and backed up the talk with action. From the 1950s through the late 1970s, more than 50 percent of all research and development in the United States came from federal funds.
Once the original Rising Above the Gathering Storm report was released, that same spirit brought Congress together to pass the COMPETES Act in 2007. That legislation took the challenges laid out in the report head on and set a clear goal of doubling federal research and development by 2020. It’s time to recapture the bipartisan spirit from the original COMPETES Act.
Paul Otellini, the former CEO of Intel, has warned that without raising our game in federal research the next big thing will not be invented in America and the jobs associated with it will not be created here. We should take that message to heart and seize this moment. When Internet technology was first developed in government research facilities, we had no idea the economic revolution it would fuel – and that this revolution would be led by the United States.
It’s time we support the next generation of innovators. We need to ensure that they have the opportunities and resources they need to make the discoveries that will drive commercial successes for our entrepreneurs. Together, Congress can step up to the plate and work together to find practical solutions to make sure tomorrow’s cutting-edge technology is developed here, not overseas.
Rep. Derek Kilmer represents Washington’s 6th District. He is a member of the New Democrat Coalition. Follow: @RepDerekKilmer