WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan released Wednesday calls for $180 billion in new research and development spending on emerging technologies expected to define the coming decades and drive military innovation.
The American Jobs Plan, which would total $2 trillion in new spending over a decade through corporate tax increases, addresses concerns that a lack of federal investment in research and development risks the U.S. seceding the position of the world’s top technological innovator to China. Leading the world in technology is “critical to both our future economic competitiveness and our national security,” Biden’s plan stated.
If Congress accepts the proposal, the government would try to counter China by pushing billions into emerging technologies — including quantum computing, artificial intelligence and microelectronics — that underpin weapon systems and will help the Pentagon compete in increasingly digital battlefields.
“Investing $180 billion in R&D across the federal government and civilian agencies would be a significant down payment on the future of innovation at a time when federal R&D is its lowest in decades as a percentage of GDP,” Tony Samp, senior policy adviser on artificial intelligence and defense for law firm DLA Piper, told C4ISRNET. “And when game-changing technologies touch so many sectors of the economy, there are certainly ancillary benefits to this kind of civilian investment to national security and the Department of Defense.”
The plan calls for a $50 billion investment in the National Science Foundation, where the Biden administration wants to create a new technology directorate to “collaborate with and build on existing programs across the government.” The directorate would focus on semiconductors, advanced computing, advanced energy technologies and biotechnologies. The proposal is half of the $100 billion plan introduced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for a similar NSF technology directorate.
Biden also calls for a $40 billion investment in upgrading research labs across the country, “including brick-and-mortar facilities and computing capabilities and networks.” Some of the funds would be allocated across the federal R&D agencies. Half the money would be reserved for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority-serving institutions, a core aspect of Biden’s plan to provide new opportunities to underserved communities. The U.S. Department of Defense also recently opened a networking center of excellence at the University of California, Riverside, as part of its Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions Research and Education Program.
Megan Lamberth, research associate at the Center for a New American Security, said that the White House plan harkened back to public investments by the federal government during the Cold War that led to the development of the internet and other advanced technologies
“The plan itself focuses on what I see as the bedrock of U.S. innovation. It touches on our people, our infrastructure and our investments,” Lamberth said.
The Biden plan seeks to address the semiconductor supply chain challenges faced by the U.S. government by spending $50 billion on manufacturing and research. Semiconductor manufacturing largely takes place outside the U.S., raising security concerns about the core technology for everything from smartphones to 5G networks to fighter jets. The Biden proposal matches a $50 billion investment in semiconductors from a bipartisan bill called the CHIPS Act passed in last year’s defense authorization bill.
Supply chain concerns spurred Biden’s proposal for $50 billion to create a new office at the Department of Commerce to support domestic production of technologies.
The plan includes $35 billion for climate science and related “technology breakthroughs,” an area impacting the military more as severe weather affects some military operations and installations, and a warming planet contributes power struggles in the Arctic. On top of that, the plan includes $15 billion for “demonstration projects” for numerous climate R&D priorities, including quantum computing, energy storage, and separation of rare earth elements, which are used in many defense systems.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for government and industry collaboration,” Lambert said. “There’d be less pushback from industry to work on issues related to climate change, and I think it’s just a really important issue to the public. It’s an issue that people can rally around.”
If approved, the plan would deliver over half of Biden’s campaign promise to invest $300 billion in research and development over four years. In recent months, U.S. officials have ramped up calls for broader federal spending on innovation, particularly after the release of a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence report that recommended billions in spending on AI and microelectronics research.
U.S. investment in basic R&D has fallen from almost 2 percent of gross domestic product in 1964 to just 0.7 percent in 2016, alarming experts that the U.S. isn’t spending enough to harness technological breakthroughs.
“By including technology innovation and R&D in its infrastructure and jobs package to ‘out-compete’ China, the Biden administration is smartly tapping into bipartisan concerns and making a broader jobs package more appealing,” Samp said. “The R&D portion would strengthen the U.S.’ ability to stay competitive in technologies of the future and create jobs at home.”
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.