Op-ed: By Investing in Science, Trump Can Strengthen the Economy
Science and technology have powered America’s economic engine for more than 70 years. But federal support has been getting leaner. The nation is spending about 60 percent of what it did 30 years ago on federal research and development as measured against the total economy. In other words, this spending is becoming a smaller percentage of the gross domestic product.
That’s a big problem, because many of our global competitors in Europe and Asia have been ramping up their research spending with a goal of knocking us off our scientific and economic pedestal.
Now President Trump is in the position to do something about it.
During his campaign, he hammered away at the historically slow growth of the American economy during the Obama years. He repeatedly pledged to speed up the pace of that trajectory. Increasing investments in long-term scientific research, long a federal responsibility, can help him deliver on his pledge. The nonpartisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation underscored the importance of such investments when it noted that it ranked the United States only 10th on its global innovation index largely because of flagging support for long-term research.
The funding pinch is causing us to become more risk averse and forgo wagers on transformational technologies — such as high-capacity multi-electron batteries — that could pay off in a big way if they succeed. It is also allowing our vaunted science and technology infrastructure to decay. The greatly oversubscribed Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for example, has been waiting almost a decade for a desperately needed second “target station” to meet the needs of materials research so critical to industry.
But before President Trump takes the science plunge, he needs to get the best and most honest advice he can. He should start by appointing his own science adviser, someone he trusts who has the professional stature, respect and breadth of knowledge commensurate with the complexities of the job and holds sensible views on climate change.
He also needs to fully staff the Office of Science and Technology Policy, as every president has since Gerald Ford. And he should maintain the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology that has reported directly to every president since George H. W. Bush. Not only do those two offices ensure that a president receives quality analysis and timely professional advice, but they also insulate him from lobbyists.
Once those advisers are in place, there are three big science and technology opportunities President Trump should pursue.
First, make science infrastructure part of a national infrastructure program. Research facilities are as important as roads, bridges and airports. Just as the Eisenhower administration’s Interstate System of highways lifted the economy, creating tens of thousands of jobs in the process, our national laboratories propelled the country to the forefront of discovery, innovation and global competitiveness. So, too, did our public research universities, which are now struggling to maintain educational quality in the face of a precipitous decline in state support, as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences documented in its Lincoln Project report recently.
President Trump prides himself on being a builder of big projects. He has the opportunity to demonstrate that prowess in the science arena. He should support building major research facilities in the United States, such as the International Linear Collider for basic science or the fast spectrum test reactor that could result in less expensive and safer advanced nuclear power systems.
His second big science opportunity lies in his interest in corporate tax reform and repatriating the $2.5 trillion held overseas mostly by high-tech companies. He has proposed a low tax rate of 10 percent on that repatriated money. He should also embrace a mandate that would require corporations to deposit 5 percent of the money they bring back into a nonprofit research endowment, operated as a private-public partnership.
Representative Randy Hultgren, Republican of Illinois, has advocated creating such a quasi-governmental structure — however it is capitalized — to provide essential continuity in research support and backing for long-term applied research both government and industry often shun.
President Trump’s third big opportunity is to make major investments in clean energy research through the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the department’s energy technology programs. Last summer, congressional appropriators in both parties expressed support for the president’s request to double spending on clean energy research, although they noted there was not enough money in the current fiscal year to accommodate the first requested step — a 5 percent increase, or about $400 million.
In his fiscal year 2018 budget request, President Trump should call on Congress to make good on that support from Congress. It would enable him make good on his promise to keep an open mind on climate change — as he indicated he would in a Nov. 22 interview with The New York Times — by pursuing policies that both moderate global warning and strengthen the American economy.
President Trump entered the White House with his commitment to science suspect, but if he makes the right choices, he could leave with an enduring legacy.
Michael S. Lubell is a physics professor at City College of the City University of New York. Burton Richter, an emeritus professor of physical sciences at Stanford, won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics.