Biden’s infrastructure plan would boost science, tech, R&D funding

Included would be $50 billion for semiconductor research and manufacturing plus $50 billion for the National Science Foundation

A laboratory scientist tests serology samples from the Novavax phase 3 Covid-19 clinical vaccine trial at the University of Washington Medicine Retrovirology Lab at Harborview Medical Center in February in Seattle. (Getty Images)
A laboratory scientist tests serology samples from the Novavax phase 3 Covid-19 clinical vaccine trial at the University of Washington Medicine Retrovirology Lab at Harborview Medical Center in February in Seattle. (Getty Images)
Posted April 2, 2021 at 1:55pm

President Joe Biden’s proposal to invest $2 trillion in American infrastructure and climate change efforts also aims to reverse a more than decadelong decline in federal spending on science, research and development, and technology, as a proportion of the nation’s overall spending.

According to a rough outline of the spending plan provided by the White House this week, the proposal envisages the following (some of these amounts could be overlapping):

  • $50 billion for the National Science Foundation, which "will focus on fields like semiconductors and advanced computing, advanced communications technology, advanced energy technologies, and biotechnology," according to a White House document.
  • $30 billion in research and development aimed at spurring jobs in rural areas.
  • $40 billion to upgrade physical infrastructure of research labs in federal and university settings.
  • $35 billion for clean energy projects in a "full range of solutions needed to achieve technology breakthroughs that address the climate crisis and position America as the global leader in clean energy technology and clean energy jobs," according to the White House document.
  • $15 billion for climate change-related demonstration projects.
  • $50 billion for semiconductor research and manufacturing.

Biden is “calling on Congress to make smart investments in research and development, manufacturing, and regional economic development, and in workforce development to give our workers and companies the tools and training they need to compete on the global stage,” the White House said in a statement.

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The overall plan would be spread over eight years and, if approved by Congress, would mark a significant reversal of the steady decline in U.S. government spending on science, research and technology.

Federal research and development spending as a percentage of GDP for fiscal 2020 was 0.74 percent, according to data from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The proportion of the nation’s spending on research has fallen steadily during the past two decades, according to the association’s data. In 1977, for example, the United States spent 1.25 percent of its GDP on R&D.

In recent years, spending on science and research and development has been a routine target for budget cuts, according to a 2020 report from the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.

"The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to cut funding from federal research and public health agencies,” Goldman Sachs pointed out in an April 2020 report.

The report noted that in the previous two decades, half of federal research funding was set aside for life sciences. Of that amount, 80 percent went to the National Institutes of Health, and yet NIH’s budget has been “essentially flat since 2004,” the report said.

As a result of cuts in federal research and development spending during both Republican and Democratic administrations, the U.S. government “now plays a much smaller role in advancing science than it did in the past,” Goldman Sachs said. “The consequence of this trend is particularly damaging for basic research, which depends on the government as its main source of funding.”

The internet, GPS and drugs to combat cancer, diabetes and heart disease have all come from basic research conducted by federal labs and university research programs receiving federal grants.

In contrast to the United States, research and development spending in China has increased in double-digit percentages for years with the goal of spending 2.5 percent of its GDP on it, according to the AAAS. That figure includes government and other sources of funding.

U.S. spending on research and development including federal, private, universities and industry funding was about 2.8 percent of GDP, according to the association.