Biden needs an innovation agenda

From the cotton gin to the mobile phone, the U.S. has produced some of the most useful inventions of the past three centuries. Yet by several measures, its traditional leadership in science and technology is now under threat.

As Joe Biden’s administration gets underway, reviving American ingenuity should be among his top priorities.

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Biden should push to raise government investment in research and development. Federally funded research has been a crucial component of America’s scientific success. In recent years, almost one-third of patents granted have relied on it. Yet federal R&D spending as a share of GDP has stagnated at about 0.7% during the past three years, down from a historical average of 1.1%.

Reversing this worrying trend will cost a lot — about $240 billion annually, up from $164 billion last year. But few steps are more essential for boosting innovation, productivity and competitiveness.

Innovation also has a vital role to play in shifting the economy to clean energy, which Biden rightly emphasized. His plan for a cross-agency research team, dubbed ARPA-C, to investigate far-out energy technologies is on the right track. Pairing such investment with better incentives for private-sector R&D (using subsidies or more generous tax credits) would help boost jobs, incomes and economic growth. Prioritizing breakthrough technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, meanwhile, would go a long way toward sustaining American leadership in the industries of the future.

Another priority should be improving digital literacy throughout the government.

Expanding successful programs such as the 18F office and the U.S. Digital Service, which act as in-house tech consultancies for federal agencies, would help. Biden should also consider adding an office within the White House to evaluate how proposed regulations would affect innovation. Such efforts should help rationalize government tech policy, lure more talented workers into public service and ensure promising businesses aren’t burdened by misguided new rules.

Finally, a critical ingredient in Silicon Valley’s success has been openness to immigration. Yet the country is squandering its traditional advantages in this regard. Although foreign-born students now make up half or more of U.S. doctoral graduates in critical fields such as engineering, math and computer science, the government offers no permanent visa for them.

To boost U.S. competitiveness, Biden should increase visas for skilled workers and prioritize applicants with in-demand STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills, exempt international graduates of U.S. schools with advanced science degrees from the cap on green card allotments and offer a start-up visa for entrepreneurs who create new jobs. Taken together, such steps would help America remain a beacon for the world’s best scientists, engineers and technologists.

Innovation has powered the American economy for decades, but it doesn’t occur by magic. As Thomas Edison, inventor extraordinaire, famously held, it’s mostly hard work.

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Biden’s administration should keep that in mind — and get to it.

— Bloomberg Opinion

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