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For a Robust Recovery, Invest in Innovation

Originally published by Scientific American.

During the great plague of 1665, Isaac Newton made the most of his year of social distancing. While forced to be away from Cambridge, he famously discovered the laws of gravity, conducted groundbreaking experiments in optics and began to develop the fundamentals of differential calculus.

This may serve as a potentially inspiring (or hopelessly intimidating) story for scientists and engineers now working from home. However, today’s scientific and innovation enterprise is no longer driven by monumental individual contributions. Instead, it’s through large international collaborations and day-to-day social and intellectual exchange in universities, national labs and start-up incubators. In the modern era, social distancing no longer leads to breakthrough innovation.

As a way to help control the spread of the coronavirus, universities across the country have made the difficult, but correct, decision to send students home, transitioning to distance learning in order to fulfil their educational mission.

And researchers have been playing their part in the immediate crisis response. For example, the lab of Emily Balskus, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, donated its RNA extraction kits to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston; equipment critical to both coronavirus testing and the day-to-day research work in their lab.

What has been less reported, although potentially more impactful in the long-run, is that universities have been forced to directly scale back on-campus research in order to accomplish social distancing. This leaves postdocs and professors to make difficult decisions on how to wind down ongoing research projects until society can return to its normal rhythm—which could take a year and a half or more.

Asegun Henry, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT whose research focuses on developing the next generation of energy storage technologies, emphasizes the impact of social distancing on his lab: “We’re shut down. There’s no more lab work. We’re holding meetings virtually, but it’s a devastating blow to our research.”

This major disruption has not been limited to universities. The U.S. national labs have begun to limit access to their scientific user facilities: light sources for cutting edge materials development at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California; innovative advanced manufacturing tools at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee; and facilities for the development of advanced nuclear technologies at Idaho National Laboratory. Further, start-up incubators, such as Greentown Labs near Boston, have been forced to limit visitor access to their facilities. These actions will necessarily slow the rate of virus transmission, but in the process slow the rate of information and knowledge exchange, reducing the rate of innovation and economic growth.

With our national research enterprise grinding to a halt, policy makers must recognize that this disruption could slow down U.S. economic growth for decades to come. A strategic federal response to the current crisis must include broad-based economic stimulus now, with large injections of capital into projects throughout the economy with the potential for immediate impact. However, policy makers should not forget to lay the groundwork for America’s long-term growth and resiliency.

As part of any COVID-19 stimulus and recovery packages, ramping up funding for innovation—through increased budgets for such entities as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health—will be the most direct way to resuscitate and then grow our national innovation ecosystem.

We have successfully done this before, and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act serves as an example of how direct stimulus and recovery investment in clean energy jump-started what is now one of the most dynamic sectors of the U.S. economy. One major achievement of the ARRA was the seeding of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, or ARPA-E, whose investments in high-risk, high-reward energy technologies have led to the formation of 82 new companies, generated 385 patents and attracted more than $3.2 billion in private-sector follow-on funding over this past decade. Further, ARRA funds were used to successfully demonstrate utility-scale solar photovoltaic technology, through federal loan guarantees, which helped contribute to renewables now being the fastest growing source of electricity in the U.S.

We don’t yet know the depths of the current economic disruption—the Great Recession did not require a full cessation of collaborative research activity—but we must prepare for a postpandemic recovery that will ensure a flourishing economy for years to come. Investing in the U.S. innovation system must be central to that effort.

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