US Science Policy: Post-Pandemic Directions

We often read how great and sustained innovations emerge from crises.  This is certainly the case in history of American policy making.  One prominent example is US science and technology policy, which, even today, can trace many of its key components back to the US government’s response to WWII.  Key practices, such as the creation of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) and the use of massive R&D spending as the core of our technology policies, all date back to WWII.  These science investments helped win the war, but they also helped set the contours of US policy for more than fifty years.

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Will the same pattern hold after our COVID-19 pandemic response?  That’s the focus of an interesting new National Bureau of Economic Research paper by Duke’s Daniel Gross and Columbia University’s Bhaven Sampat.  They compare the US crisis response in WWII and in the COViD-19 pandemic and assess what large policy changes may persist in coming decades.  While it’s too early to make definitive conclusions, the authors project that several new policy responses may color our future science and technology investments.  They predict a major uptick in overall R&D spending, along with a significant re-orientation of funding to more applied outcomes.  They also predict that governments will continue their more active use of large-scale procurement contracts as the primary vehicle to spur R&D spending. Finally, as the R&D sources become more diverse and decentralized, government agencies will need to develop new tools and structures to support effective partnerships and collaboration.  We’ll see how these predictions pan out, but we can be certain that lessons learned from COVID-19 will be influencing US innovation policies for decades.