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In Science, The Power of Partnerships Prevails

November 18, 2021

The public and private sectors must work together to speed innovation and fix supply chains for critical technologies. There is an old saying: "If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to...

The public and private sectors must work together to speed innovation and fix supply chains for critical technologies.

There is an old saying: "If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together."

This is especially true in the field of scientific research, where innovation often comes from community and collaboration rather than a lone breakthrough by one individual. From putting humanity on the moon to the global scientific mobilization to fight COVID-19, we have seen first-hand that partnerships yield big, history-changing results.

Partnership must be consistently nurtured and today in the United States we could be doing much more to advance our national approach to science and innovation and harness its potential to help address society’s biggest challenges. Over the last 30 years, U.S. investment in research has never represented more than 1% of GDP. Investment in federal Research and Development constitutes a smaller percentage of our GDP today than it did in 1964. That puts the U.S behind thirteen other nations when it comes to public investment in science and technology.

The consequence of that disconnect affects everyday life. A global shortage of the essential microchips that have brought the intelligence of computing to so many daily essentials - from cars and refrigerators to our homes and cities - has come just as demand for any item with a chip seems insatiable. Today, it’s tough and increasingly expensive to buy anything from a pickup truck to a PlayStation. Policymakers are hunting for new ways to avoid debilitating bottlenecks in the future supply chain of these essential microprocessors. 

Throughout our history, IBM has seen the great results that occur when diverse stakeholders including the public and private sectors work together in the spirit of innovation, and we believe that good R&D policy is good fiscal and national security policy. In that spirit, we have urged U.S. policymakers to act on several important fronts, including:

1) Sending the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act to the President’s Desk. This legislation would strengthen the interconnectivity between private industry, academic research, and government that have long-propelled innovation. A key aspect of this bill expands the reach and impact of the National Science Foundation (NSF) by significantly increasing investments in emerging technologies such as AI, cybersecurity, high-performance computing, robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing. The NSF has been funding key technology research for decades with strong results. In 1994, the NSF funded the research of two Stanford graduate students who prototyped a system to map and rank pages on the World Wide Web. Those students later founded Google. USICA would spur economic growth and job creation by forming regional technology hubs in local communities that have been traditionally underserved by the tech industry. It’s time for both chambers of Congress to work together and send a unified bill to the president’s desk.

2) Strengthening the Semiconductor Pipeline. The U.S. share of global semiconductor manufacturing capacity has eroded from 37% in 1990 to 12% today. During the same period, other countries invested ambitiously in chip manufacturing and research incentives. Congress took an important step towards restoring U.S. leadership in semiconductor technology with passage of the CHIPS for America Act in 2021. Among other things, this law calls for establishment of a National Semiconductor Technology Center (NSTC), where industry, academia, and government would work together to meet the technology, innovation and manufacturing demands of today while anticipating those of tomorrow. Albany, New York is home to a unique semiconductor innovation ecosystem of companies, academic institutions, and a trained workforce – a combination found nowhere else in the country – that can move new chip designs to different foundries, ensuring collaboration on advanced semiconductor R&D to meet the country’s economic and national security needs. Leveraging the unique capabilities in Albany as part of the NSTC initiative would enable it to generate results and a return on the taxpayer’s investment far faster than a greenfield investment elsewhere. It also would complement investment in other states with major semiconductor industry presence. Congress should fully fund the CHIPS Act before the end of 2021.

3) Expanding the International Science Reserve. Creating a corps of volunteer scientists that can swiftly be mobilized in times of crisis and assembling human and technological resources to combat our country’s next threat should be part of our nation’s planning for future emergencies. A foundation exists today in the International Science Reserve, which evolved from the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium, and America should contribute more scientific talent and resources to better prepare for the next crisis.

4) Increasing Underrepresented Communities in STEM Fields. While a significant amount of money from the private sector funds advancing STEM education, there is no coordinated federal effort in this area. We must bring the government and industry together to ensure increased diversity in STEM and create a more inclusive pipeline of skilled tech workers. Congress should take concrete steps such as reforming the Higher Education Act and expanding access to Pell Grants for less than full-time courses of study to increase diversity in STEM, expand access to more skills education pathways, and promote a more inclusive high-tech workforce.

5) Accelerating Quantum Computing Research. Quantum computing has the potential to accelerate scientific discovery and catalyze economic growth. However, achieving those outcomes will require greater investment in quantum science and improving device quality, while also building quantum computers for experimentation in academia, government, and industries. The next phase of discovery should prioritize development of new quantum algorithms in addition to accelerating progress towards fully error-corrected quantum computers.

Innovation is critical to America’s economy and national security. Together, the private and public sectors can – with the support of these pragmatic, forward-looking public policies - work together to create a safer, healthier, and more prosperous future. 

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