New COMPETES Act falls short of US scientific potential

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer

When you think about the Internet, a lot of things come to mind.

Fantasy football. Online shopping. The ability to follow your friends (and your kids) on social media.

But we seldom talk about Vint Cerf who, in addition to having a catchy name, worked for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency and led the charge in creating the tool that now allows you book travel, buy movie tickets, and to act out new verbs like “tweet” and “google.”

We don’t often think about the fact that Cerf and his team of researchers used government funding to connect computers at a number of universities, taking the first key steps in developing the global network we now know as the Internet.

Innovation happens in all sorts of ways by all sorts of players. In Washington state, we’ve seen extraordinary innovators. Boeing revolutionized air travel, Amazon changed commerce, and Microsoft ushered in a new era for personal computers.

But how about the U.S. Navy, which did the foundational research that led to the development of ultrasound technologies? Far too often, we forget that one of America’s key angel investors isn’t a billionaire entrepreneur or a venture capitalist: It’s Uncle Sam.

Check out the smartphone in your pocket. As economist Mariana Mazzucato points out, the lithium batteries that power it, the multitouch screen that enables you to navigate its capabilities, the Internet that runs on it to help you find a decent Thai restaurant, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) app that helps you find your way there to grab delicious take-out, all share the same origin: The basic research behind each of these innovations began in government-sponsored laboratories.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives considered reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act. This law was originally passed in 2007 as a bipartisan bill seeking to double federal investments in research and development by 2020 to enhance our country’s focus on science education and innovation.

Congress passed the COMPETES Act because it wanted to ensure that America’s Vint Cerfs discover the latest revolutionary breakthroughs on our shores, not someplace else.

Former Rep. Bart Gordon, then-chairman of the House Science & Technology Committee, embraced that sentiment, saying, “We have to recognize that there are roughly seven billion people in the world, half of whom make less than $2 a day. We cannot and would not want to compete with that. We have to compete at a higher level with a better-equipped and skilled workforce than that of our global counterparts.”

But the House bill we recently voted on did not live up to that statement.

Under that bill, federal investment in research wouldn’t even keep up with inflation. The bill did not make the investments that would encourage our scientists go to bigger. Instead, it would put Congress – not scientists or leaders at the National Science Foundation – in charge of determining which kinds of research should get funding. To top it off, researchers at campuses like the University of Washington Tacoma who are seeking grants for their research would also be confronted with more red tape.

It’s time to do better. Congress must go back to the bipartisan spirit of the original COMPETES legislation.

Last year, I joined some of my colleagues in laying out an alternative plan – one that would ensure a strong foundation to invest in innovation and foster scientific growth. Our guidelines were modeled off the broad, bipartisan support that this legislation once had.

Boosting investments in research and development gives entrepreneurs and innovators from the Pacific Northwest and throughout our nation a chance to try out ideas with the potential to revolutionize the way we live. It could also spur the type of breakthroughs that support growing clusters like the cybersecurity hub we are building in Tacoma.

The 20th century’s arms race has turned into a 21st century brains race. It’s a world where our competitors are trying to recruit and develop the next generation of innovators. Congress needs to do its job and pass a COMPETES Act that puts us ahead of the pack once again.

Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, represents the 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.