While substantive conversations about science and technology tend to be absent from preelection rhetoric and presidential debates, their absence during the 2016 presidential election campaign was puzzling and unnerving, not only for scientists and technologists, but also for economists, business leaders, and entrepreneurs. After all, we are at the dawn of the “fourth industrial revolution,” as Dr. Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, refers to this unprecedented chapter in the history of humankind.
Thanks to the tremendous advances in computing and communication systems brought to bear by the third industrial revolution—the digital revolution—we are at that point in our history in which the physical and the cyber worlds are fusing together in ways that promise to deliver transformative improvements in the human condition and enable a sustainable future for our species. Never before has artificial intelligence felt so much within reach, with robotics and the “Internet of Things” gearing up to free us from the mundane and the tedious and, in doing so, inspire and empower our creative, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual selves. Never before have we been able to inspect and monitor our precious home, planet earth, with a degree of accuracy and detail that allows us to predict and protect ourselves from dangerous weather, to increase food production in an environmentally responsible way, and to be proactive and effective in ensuring a sustainable future. Never before have we felt so empowered and so confident in our quest to prevent, manage, and even cure all diseases.
Now, more than ever, science and technology will determine the welfare of our nation, its global competitiveness, its security, and its global leadership. The United States of America has set the standard for prosperity through innovation, and the notion of “making America great,” absent scientific discovery and technological innovation, rings hollow.
Alarmed by this remarkable negligence of the importance of science and technology in the pre-election rhetoric, the leaders of twenty-nine scientific and higher-education organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of American Universities, reached out to President-elect Trump. In an open letter on November 23, 2016, they urged him to “build on our strong history of federal support for innovation, entrepreneurship and science and technology” in order “to maintain America’s global leadership and respond to the economic and security challenges currently facing the nation.”
Soon after this appeal, on December 14, 2016, President-elect Trump met with top executives of some of the most innovative, most powerful, and most influential U.S. companies, including Apple’s Tim Cook, Tesla Motors’ and Space X’s Elon Musk, Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. The spectacular success of these companies would not have been possible without sustained federal funding for the sciences and engineering innovation. In addition to groundbreaking discoveries and pioneering innovations, such federal funding has been pivotal in the education and training of, arguably, the most talented workforce in the world, which in turn fueled the digital revolution and established this country as its indisputable leader. Mr. Bezos urged President-elect Trump to emphasize innovation as a driver for prosperity and economic growth in all sectors, including manufacturing, agriculture, and infrastructure. President-elect Trump offered a glimpse of hope regarding his administration’s intention to embrace the responsibility of federal funding for scientific discovery and technological innovation with this statement: “[t]here’s nobody like the people in this room, and anything we can do to help this go along we’re going to do that for you.”
This glimpse of hope grew into a promise when President Trump, during his January 20, 2017 inaugural address, challenged us to stand “ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.” Then, the promise began to fade, first with the remarkable absence of any reference to science and technology in the president’s first address to Congress on February 28, 2017 and, then, with the unnerving delay in appointing renowned scientists and expert technologists to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (“OSTP”).
100 days later, OSTP remains vacant, and thus unable to serve its mission:
to provide the President and others within the Executive Office of the President with advice on the scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of the economy, national security, homeland security, health, foreign relations, the environment, and the technological recovery and use of resources, among other topics. OSTP also leads interagency science and technology policy coordination efforts, assists the Office of Management and Budget with an annual review and analysis of Federal research and development in budgets, and serves as a source of scientific and technological analysis and judgment for the President with respect to major policies, plans, and programs of the Federal Government.
The absence of OSTP’s pivotal involvement in informing federal-government priorities and major investments is evident in President Trump’s proposed budget. The budget recommends profound cuts in federal funding of research, including a $6 billion reduction of the funding of the National Institutes of Health (“NIH”) and several billions more in cuts to scientific research in the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. These proposed cuts stand in striking contrast to the document’s aspirational title “America First—A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.”
The damaging impact that such cuts, if materialized, will have on the nation’s competitiveness and leadership in scientific discovery and technological innovation is compounded by the apparent lack of appreciation and understanding of how federal research funding supports the nation’s research universities. This is evident in the remarks that Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price made while defending the proposed cuts to the NIH budget. Expressing his surprise that “[a]bout 30 percent of the grant money that goes out is used for indirect expenses, which, as you know, means that that money goes for something other than the research that’s being done,” he argued that the proposed budget cuts will have no impact on the actual research being done.
These are alarming signs of a national agenda incompatible with the principles on which this country was founded and built. Discovery and innovation, the fruit of the mind’s free exploration and inquiry, are the most powerful qualities of human existence. Our young nation’s history offers compelling evidence of how their fostering and generous support leads to progress and prosperity.
The twenty-first century is like no other. Technology is king, disrupting all industries and our way of life. Those nations that embrace the challenges of the profound changes ahead and strategically and aggressively invest in new discoveries and innovations—in ways to manage the coming changes, contain the disruptions, and defuse the unavoidable conflicts that accompany major progress—will ride the wave of the fourth industrial revolution to prosperity and global leadership. President Trump’s ambitious goals are in desperate need of the most competent, most responsible, and most unbiased OSTP team. He must act swiftly and wisely with its appointment. Because it is science and technology that make America great, and will keep it great.
* Dean of the University of Illinois College of Engineering and the M.E. Van Valkenburg Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Professor Cangellaris received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece in 1981, and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.