On Nov. 17, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Vannevar Bush. the director of the 3-year-old Office of Scientific Research and Development, “New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.” The president asked Bush four questions. They are the same questions we should be asking today:
First: What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?
In 2020 parlance that war is the war against COVID-19. We have learned a lot. How are we going to share that knowledge and maximize it to the fullest potential?
Second: With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?
That’s verbatim what the president asked in 1944. We must ask this same question again today. We have to start thinking and planning about what happens next time. Because there will be a next time. Not if but when. You can count on it.
Third: What can the government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations? The proper roles of public and of private research, and their interrelation, should be carefully considered.
One of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we can accomplish great things quickly when we work together. The American health care ecosystem of the biopharmaceutical industry, academia, government health agencies, manufacturing logicians, hospitalists, health care workers, pharmacists, patients and caregivers accelerated our understanding of the virus, how to mitigate it, flatten the curve and save lives.
Fourth: Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?
What’s the COIVD-19 message? We mustn’t sit on our laurels. There’s work to be done.
On May 27, 2020, in the midst of COVID-19’s darkest hour, Sen. Todd Young, Indiana Republican, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat, and Rep. Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Republican, unveiled the bipartisan, bicameral Endless Frontier Act, an initiative to solidify U.S. leadership in scientific and technological innovation through increased investments in the discovery, creation and commercialization of technology fields of the future.
“By virtue of being the first to emerge on the other side of this pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party is working hard to use the crisis to its advantage by extending influence over the global economy,” said Mr. Young. “As America emerges from this crisis, we must not be content with merely recovering our losses. Instead, we must position ourselves to lead and the Endless Frontier Act is the way to do it.”
“The coronavirus pandemic has shown the science and technology gap between the United States and the rest of the world is closing fast and that threatens our long-term health, economic competitiveness, and national security,” said Mr. Schumer. “America cannot afford to continue our decades-long underinvestment and expect to lead the world in advanced scientific and technological research.”
The Endless Frontier Act proposes an expansion of the National Science Foundation (NSF) — to be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation (NTSF) — and the establishment of a Technology Directorate within NTSF to advance technology in 10 critical focus areas.
The newly established Technology Directorate would receive $100 billion over five years to lead investment and research in artificial intelligence and machine learning; high performance computing; robotics, automation and advanced manufacturing; and more. An additional $10 billion would be authorized to designate at least 10 regional technology hubs, awarding funds for comprehensive investment initiatives that position regions across the country to be global centers for the research, development and manufacturing of key technologies.
As Vannevar Bush responded to President Roosevelt in his 1945 report, “Science: The Endless Frontier”: “Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”
It’s time, once again, for America to set sail for the “Endless Frontier.” And the Endless Frontier Act is a good place to start.
• Peter J. Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner, is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a visiting professor at the University of Paris School of Medicine.