Why We Must Stay at Technology's Forefront
The job market and the tech world got some good news this summer when a comprehensive Pew Poll found that 48% of Americans want to increase federal funding for science research—up 11 points from only four years ago—and just 12% want to see cuts. At a time when few ideas enjoy anywhere near that kind of public support, it’s clear that we are ready for a research-and-development investment boom that can bolster our entire economy.
Not all of this funding needs to come from Congress. We’re living in an age when Elon Musk and other entrepreneurs are building public-private partnerships with federal agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to achieve more than either party could achieve alone. Between supportive government agencies, strong backing from academia and a private sector willing to make necessary investments, the U.S. is primed to see the kind of job-creating tech boom we haven’t seen in decades.
This growth won’t happen unless each sector agrees to work together more closely, pool resources and think creatively about mutually beneficial goals. That’s why recent events in core scientific fields such as physics are so exciting.
Over the course of several decades, Congress has awarded approximately $1.1 billion to build and fund a project called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Last year, in a spectacular proof of some of Albert Einstein’s fundamental theories about the nature of the universe, LIGO—with the technology and expertise available at partnering institutions such as Cal Tech, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and my company, Parsons—detected the existence of gravity waves, a discovery that earned three of its key U.S. researchers the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.
The LIGO results are widely acknowledged as opening a new chapter in our understanding of reality—for example, the life cycle of a star, what happens when black holes collide and, potentially, even what happened at the earliest moments of the universe. And LIGO is not the only recent advancement of its kind. We’re just now at the beginning of a phenomenon some are calling “the quantum internet,” in which communication is made not with electronically transmitted ones and zeros but with packets of light photons that allow for unbreakable encryption—an instant plus for anyone concerned about privacy and information security. Quantum computing also will allow for artificial intelligence to advance to Deep Learning, and that’s a technological evolution of astounding possibilities.
Potential contributors to these kinds of world-changing discoveries should understand just how valuable they are in every sense. Think of research as the necessary first step in producing a consumer product or service, and then think of it as its own branch of economic activity. Many research programs that lead to breakthroughs with positive applications have specific technical and engineering needs, unique infrastructure requirements and sometimes demand a lot of room to work. These programs are very good for the economy.
The LIGO project, to take just one example, is run jointly at detection centers in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La., where they will employ people for years to come as the project teams continue their work. Who knows where the members of the LIGO team would have ended up had several partners not provided key funding and technical expertise? And who knows what the raw materials of the LIGO discoveries will become as tech-savvy entrepreneurs begin to absorb the lessons learned?
Luckily, so far, Congress and federal agencies have understood the importance of research. In a far-reaching and foresighted decision, the National Science Foundation in the early 1990s created a funding mechanism specifically to cover the cost of scientists’ equipment and operating space. Congress appropriates money each year to this account.
But we can’t and don’t need to rely solely on federal funds for research and development.
We need more of these kinds of investments from any and all sources prepared to offer them: Washington, the private sector and academia.
Cutting back on scientific research will only hurt us in the long run.
Together, we can keep America at the forefront of discovery and at the forefront of the global economy—where we are today and where we can remain with the right support.
Charles L. “Chuck” Harrington is chairman and CEO of Parsons and tweets at @clh001 and @ParsonsCorp.
If you have an idea for a column, please contact Viewpoint Editor Richard Korman at email@example.com.