By Sethuraman Panchanathan & Brian Sandoval, Reno Gazette Journal, September 19, 2023
Strong economic growth, health and security are national priorities. Underpinning those values are decades of investments in U.S. science and engineering. In fact, you might already know that the internet, computer chips, solar cells, 3D printing — nearly every major American invention in the last 75 years is connected to science research funded by the federal government.
The unprecedented challenges we face today require a generational advancement in America’s innovation ecosystems.
To be clear, the U.S. model, characterized by a unique interplay among universities, companies and government agencies, is one of the most powerful engines for innovation the world has ever seen. During the golden era of U.S. science funding, which peaked in 1964, it created new technologies, industries and fueled economic prosperity.
Since then, other countries have learned from the U.S. and created their own models. The current global landscape is crowded and fiercely competitive. Our leadership in artificial intelligence and other key technology areas is critical. As a high-impact research institution, the University of Nevada, Reno is proud to be at the forefront of such translational scientific research.
In 2022, as supply chains stalled and car inventories tightened, it was clear that the lack of domestic semiconductor manufacturing was hurting the economy. Instead of continuing the status quo, Congress and the administration chose a visionary approach. As the director of the U.S. National Science Foundation and president of the University of Nevada, Reno, we see that decision as pivotal.
Today, after decades of offshoring, we are again investing in America. Together as a nation, we are updating the systems of innovation that we built in the last century so that we can better rise to the challenges of this one.
These problems are beyond the abilities of any single entity to solve alone. We need a well-orchestrated symphony of efforts. Since innovation thrives on diversity, the more inclusive of the multitude of perspectives, backgrounds, skills and landscapes in this country, the better we can problem-solve.
Within the people and places that make up this nation lies the transformative potential of innovation. The full innovation might of our people and places remains one of America’s greatest strengths but least realized assets. That is why we are working with change-makers across the nation, like the University of Nevada, Reno, to revitalize the country by harnessing the geography of innovation, enabling research and development as well as education and training for high-paying jobs.
While some argued that public investments would stifle private sector growth, the landmark, bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act demonstrated the opposite effect. Public investments acted as a magnet, attracting significant private involvement, with American companies like Micron and Intel pledging billions for U.S. fabrication facilities and workforce training programs.
The impact of these investments has been substantial, as the U.S. managed to avoid the worst economic outcomes. President Biden’s fiscal year 2024 budget stands as the largest investment in federal research and development ever proposed, marking this as a defining moment for America.
Bipartisan support for cutting-edge research and development will continue to play a pivotal role in realizing the United States’ greatest aspirations.
Rather than crowd out the private sector, collective participation can “crowd-in” solutions. Research emerges as a dynamic response, an iterative process of co-design and creation between researchers and the people entrenched in the reality of the problems they aspire to solve. This dynamic can help spur breakthroughs.
That is especially true because there are disconnects between discovery and development; good ideas lose momentum and breakthroughs stall. The process of moving cutting-edge advancements from the lab to the real world requires not only bridging major gaps, but creating ecosystems that identify and eliminate those gaps before they stall technological advancements.
Innovation can and should happen everywhere. Every town, city, county and region in America offers unique contributions to American innovation, including Nevada. Investing in and enhancing regional capacity empowers more communities to participate effectively in solving major problems. That is the idea behind the NSF Regional Innovation Engines, or Engines, program. It is creating regional collaborations between governments, educational institutions, labor unions, businesses and community-based organizations to drive progress in key fields across the U.S.
Local talent and accessible skill development pathways can unlock a community’s potential. In Nevada, a coalition led by the University of Nevada, Reno, with nearly two dozen partners spanning industry, nonprofits, state government, academia and key minority-serving institutes, is advancing the circular economy for lithium batteries. This is a critical resource for renewable energy.
NSF awarded 44 such development awards across the country, creating the critical early scaffolding to support innovation. That is how the U.S. will continue to rise to even the most daunting challenges.
In the past, hard-working people shaped America’s growth, driving economic competitiveness and prosperity. We rekindle that spirit today, with science, engineering and technology leading the way. The true measure of hope lies in the extent of the opportunities it creates. By investing in research, development, innovation and people, so that opportunities are everywhere, and innovation is happening anywhere, we are transforming the impossible into a reality of boundless American possibilities.
Sethuraman Panchanathan is a computer scientist and engineer and the 15th director of the U.S. National Science Foundation. Brian Sandoval is president of the University of Nevada, Reno; he also served two terms as the 29th governor of the State of Nevada from 2011 to 2019.