America COMPETES: Vehicle for Innovating at Innovation

The America COMPETES Act is up for reauthorization, and that’s a good thing. Or at least, it’s a good thing if Congress seizes the opportunity to both invest and innovate as it extends one of the nation’s most critical vehicles for keeping the nation competitive.

Passed in 2007, in part in response to the National Academies’ report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the act remains a signal authorization of critical programs and funding focused on science, technology, science education, and research and development (R&D).

Through its first authorization the act has sustained important initiatives in the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Among those needed initiatives have been major efforts to increase the nation’s research investments; strengthen science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education from grade school to grad school; and construct a true technology innovation and commercialization infrastructure.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E)–aimed at high-risk attacks on important technological barriers with high potential pay-offs–got its start in America COMPETES. So too did a number of other worthy science and innovation initiatives, although it must be pointed out that although the act authorized a doubling of the funding of the Office of Science, the NSF, and NIST from 2007 levels, the act’s actual funding levels have fallen far short of that trajectory.

So now comes the reauthorization, and the need–at a moment of even sterner competitive pressure than 2007–to turn up both the effort and the innovation level embedded in America COMPETES.

On the effort front, it is likely that Congress’ deepening fiscal anxieties will prompt trimming and even push-back. That would be a mistake, however. Congress should significantly increase the funding levels for all of the major initiatives bundled in the act or risk America’s continued drift and competitive slippage.

But beyond that, Congress needs to go beyond simply increasing funding for the act’s existing activities. Instead, Congress needs to itself innovate by moving to spur “institutional innovation in the U.S. innovation system,” as our friend Rob Atkinson, the author of a powerful Brookings policy proposal for a National Innovation Foundation, puts it in a recent brief.

What does that mean? Atkinson has a whole lot of ideas in his brief, but basically he says reauthorization should when possible leverage non-federal resources and seek to spur collaboration between various players in the innovation system. 

He calls, for example, for creating joint NSF / industry Ph.D fellowships that would at once allow federal funds to go twice as far and help better connect grad students to the interdisciplinary nature of the practical innovation process.

He says Congress should create a SCNR program (Spurring Commercialization of Our Nation’s Research) modeled after the SBIR and STTR programs to skim off and apply a modest percentage of federal research funding to university, state, and federal laboratory commercialization initiatives.

And he would create a university-industry collaborative R&D tax credit; a set of industry-university-government manufacturing research and deployment centers; and an Office of Innovation Policy at the Office of Management and Budget as well as a National Innovation and Competitiveness Strategy such as he proposed in the innovation foundation paper.

To which I would add, as I will write in another post, that America COMPETES is also an appropriate and even necessary vehicle for other items, such as funding for competitive grants to stimulate regional industry cluster activity in U.S. regions (such as we proposed here) or for a truly region-oriented network of energy discovery-innovation institutes (e-DIIs) such as we propose in this paper. Each of these important initiatives, which have begun to receive support from the White House and Congress, would catalyze additional deployment-oriented, public-private collaboration around innovation. Each of them would significantly advance the cause of institutional innovation as America revisits America COMPETES.

The bottom line: America needs to innovate as it reauthorizes one of its critical vehicles for driving innovation in the original innovation nation.