By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – In a State of the Union speech that focused on the war in Ukraine, inflation, COVID, infrastructure and more, President Biden was adamant on one point that should be a bipartisan priority for Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.
Biden vowed to sign a bill to provide a historic burst of investment in tech-based research, development and manufacturing.
“… Let’s not wait any longer. Send it to my desk. I’ll sign it,” Biden said.
In question is legislation percolating since 2020 that would increase America’s R&D spending in targeted sectors by amounts unseen in decades, with the post-World War II, space age and genetic discovery eras being the most notable parallels.
First offered as the Endless Frontier Act, with bipartisan sponsors that included U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the basic plan is now captured in similar but not identical bills in the House and Senate. The House version is H.R. 4521, the America COMPETES Act, and the Senate bill is S. 1260, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act.
With competition from China sparking urgency to stop the erosion of U.S. science and technology investment, the bill proposes two avenues for moving forward. Both would establish a new Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions at the National Science Foundation and authorize technology research institutes in key areas. Both would create a regional technology and innovation hubs program at the Department of Commerce.
Those may sound like top-down bureaucratic themes, but the real goal is accelerating bottom-up research and innovation essential for American competitiveness in coming years. The best way to do so, most Republicans and Democrats agree, is to outline basic areas where the United States has fallen behind and invite regional proposals for how to move ahead.
Biden highlighted one of those areas March 1 in his speech to a joint session of Congress: production of semiconductor chips. He described Intel’s decision to build a fleet of factories near Columbus, Ohio, that could help boost U.S. production of computer chips. Such chips are used in everything from smart phones to vehicles to appliances. Right now, the biggest manufacturers are China and others in the Pacific Rim, and the effects of lagging U.S. production can be felt across the board.
“We used to invest 2% of our (gross domestic product) in research and development. We don’t now. China is,” Biden said.
If a House and Senate compromise committee irons out differences, Wisconsin and the upper Midwest stand to benefit. The region offers a strong combination of research clusters and industry expertise that aligns with many of the proposed technology areas identified in both the House and Senate bills. Wisconsin assets include:
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning
- High-performance computing
- Medical and atmospheric imaging
- Quantum computing
- Robotics, automation and advanced manufacturing
- Natural and man-made disaster prevention
- Advanced communications
- Biotechnology, genomics and synthetic biology
- Advanced energy technology
- Cybersecurity, data storage and data management; and
- Materials science and engineering
Sustainability and resiliency, which are related strengths and a 21st century priority for Wisconsin research institutions and corporations, are embedded across much of Wisconsin’s R&D portfolio. Think clean water technology, for example.
Once the bill is passed and the process is nailed down, Wisconsin cannot and should not submit a proposal in all areas. Talks are under way within the state’s leading research universities and some potential industry partners to narrow the scope and offer a plan that is unique and compelling.
Biden’s call-out in the State of the Union was an invitation to Congress to wrap up work on a vital blueprint for American competitiveness. Other states for forging ahead. Wisconsin should do so, too.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at email@example.com.