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A stand-alone CHIPS bill helps China by limiting US innovation

By Keith Yamamoto and Mary Woolley

Once the undisputed leader in science and technology innovation, the United States’ position is in doubt today. If Congress passes domestic semiconductor funding alone instead of as part of broader competitiveness legislation, it will demonstrate to the world that we’re willing to pass the baton to China.

While critically important, pulling the CHIPS Act funding out of the larger legislative package, as now appears likely in the coming days, will leave important and timely scientific initiatives on the cutting room floor.

This approach would kill more than a year of diligent, bipartisan collaboration on a measure to make the U.S. a global innovation powerhouse once again.

For decades, the U.S. has been unable — or unwilling — to keep up with spending on research and development in comparison to China and other nations. In fact, federal spending in this area has tanked, falling to 0.7 percent of our GDP today compared to 1.9 percent in 1964.

In the past 10 years alone, the U.S.’s share of global research and development spending declined by 2 percent between 2010 and 2019 while China’s share increased by 7 percent.

Now, China is on track to exceed the U.S. in science and technology investment by the end of the decade. Congress must choose whether to make that path even easier for China — or it can set up hurdles in the way.

Fortunately, a solution is already in hand: Finalizing a comprehensive United States Innovation and Competition Act/America COMPETES bill would propel U.S. innovation, competitiveness and the economy for years to come. Enacting the bill is doable as well as vital to the United States’ ability to compete globally, and a conference committee still has time to reach an agreement on details.

However, with momentum waning, Congress and the Biden administration are now leaning toward passing just a small portion of this bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) could bring the $52 billion in semiconductor provisions to the floor as early as this week after Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said lawmakers should “cleave off the CHIPS and pass it.”

If lawmakers take this route, we will leave behind essential investments in regional technology hubs, STEM education and strengthening U.S. science and technology infrastructure that have garnered bipartisan support. These elements are just as important — if not more so — as boosting domestic semiconductor manufacturing. We need all these pieces tied together if we hope to have a chance at keeping ahead of China.

The comprehensive competitiveness bill includes funding for increased emphasis at the National Science Foundation on Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, or TIP. This investment would bolster work across federal agencies, nonprofits and industries to enhance regional innovation and workforce development, helping to discover and bring to market the next big thing, and do so here at home.

The bill would also prioritize STEM education across all grade levels to ensure a domestic pool of well-trained students and researchers and a more diverse workforce. And it would produce outstanding educators by authorizing the National Science Corps program to establish a nationwide community of expert STEM teachers.

The challenges we face today — supply chain issues, public health, semiconductor shortages, domestic manufacturing, energy production and climate change — are all interconnected and require solutions rooted in science and technology.

The commercial benefits of new advancements accrue primarily to the nation where the innovation took place; investment in R&D has unleashed incredible economic drivers — from the microwave oven to the internet to the smartphone — in the United States since the 1950s. Now, other nations are using the U.S. playbook to drive their own economies, even as we fail to keep pace.

Passing a standalone CHIPS bill for the domestic semiconductor industry, while vital, only solves a small part of the problem. Ensuring the U.S. remains a global leader across key pillars of U.S. competitiveness requires the full scope of investment the broader legislative package would provide. 

Essentially, if Congress fails to act this month on the larger bill, we will be well on the path to ceding our position as a global leader to China.

We’ve waited far too long for lawmakers to secure the resources we need to stay globally competitive. In the next few days, Congress must choose between leadership and surrender. We hope lawmakers choose wisely.

Keith Yamamoto is the vice chancellor for science policy and strategy at the University of California, San Francisco and the president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Mary Woolley is the president and CEO of Research America. They are both co-chairs of the Science & Technology Action Committee.

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