ALI Releases Statement on the President’s FY2024
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Alliance for Learning Innovation (ALI) applauds the increases proposed for education research and development (R&D) and innovation in the President’s budget request. These include the $870.9 million proposed for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), including $75 million for a National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE), the $405 million proposed for the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program and the $1.4 billion for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for STEM Education. These investments represent real commitments to advancing an inclusive education research system that centers students, teachers, and communities.
These recommendations build upon the bipartisan interest in utilizing education R&D to accelerate learning recovery, increase student achievement, and ensure students and teachers are prepared for the continued impact technology will have on teaching and learning. National and economic security depends on the success of our students and ALI appreciates the priorities this budget request places on fostering innovations in education that will support U.S. competitiveness.
Dan Correa, CEO of the Federation of American Scientists and co-lead of ALI notes, “Investments in education research and development hold so much promise for dramatically improving gaps in student achievement. Learning recovery, workforce development, and global competition all demand a pool of talent that can only come from an education system that meets the needs of diverse learners. The President’s budget request recognizes that more robust education R&D is needed to support bold innovations that meet the needs of students, teachers, families, and communities.”
This budget will allow IES and other federal agencies the ability to build on boundary-pushing efforts like the National AI Institute for Exceptional Education, which is supporting advancements in AI, human-AI interaction, and learning science to improve educational outcomes for children with speech and language related challenges.
For too long, federal support for education R&D has languished while resources and attention have been devoted to R&D in health care, defense, energy, and other fields. Today’s budget represents a critical step forward in addressing this deficiency. The Alliance for Learning Innovation looks forward to championing the continued development of an education R&D ecosystem that will lead to the types of groundbreaking developments and advancements we see in health care and defense; thus affording students everywhere access to fulfilling futures.
For more information about the Alliance for Learning Innovation, please visit https://www.alicoalition.org/.
Safeguarding Benchtop DNA Synthesis
Benchtop DNA synthesizers could become more ubiquitous, and it’s up to policymakers to chart the way forward
The genetic blueprints for humans, plants, disease-causing bacteria, and all other living things are written in DNA, and machines capable of synthesizing DNA are becoming more accessible to potential users. Benchtop DNA synthesizers promise to increase the speed and efficiency of research in academic and industrial laboratories; however, it will be critical to incorporate safeguards into benchtop machines to prevent the printing of DNA sequences that would be used for harmful purposes. Researchers should be permitted to operate a benchtop DNA synthesizer to, for instance, make genetic material that is then used by a microbe to build a biofuel. But, aside from research conducted by pre-approved specialists, printing DNA that codes for deadly agents like the ricin or diphtheria protein toxins, for example, should be prohibited. As instruments capable of small-scale, rapid-turnaround DNA synthesis are already starting to enter the market, policymakers may be faced with a new era of democratized DNA synthesis, and should grapple with how to maximize the benefits of this technology while minimizing potential harm.
A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report speculated that by 2027, individuals both with and without formal scientific training would be rapidly prototyping and developing biological designs and products. In both institutional and DIY contexts, there are protections that could be put in place to drastically reduce the likelihood of the misuse of benchtop DNA synthesizers. For instance, a January 2020 report from the World Economic Forum, crafted in collaboration with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, recommends that benchtop DNA synthesizers:
- Be sold to and accessed by only legitimate, validated users;
- Incorporate a mechanism that compares DNA sequences entered into the machine for synthesis to a database of pathogen and toxin DNA sequences before DNA strands are printed;
- Allow synthesis of potentially hazardous DNA only for users preauthorized for such sequences, and prohibit the synthesis of pathogen or toxin DNA requested by unauthorized actors; and
- Be used by individuals who have received training in biosafety and biosecurity.
Before efficient benchtop DNA synthesizers become even more ubiquitous, decision-makers have an opportunity to craft forward-thinking policies that both (i) protect the technology from misuse and (ii) promote its potential to advance human health, a cleaner environment, and many other public goods.
This CSPI Science and Technology Policy Snapshot expands upon a scientific exchange between Congressman Bill Foster (D, IL-11) and his new FAS-organized Science Council.
A health-oriented ARPA could help the U.S. address challenges like antimicrobial resistance
To help catalyze innovation in the health and biomedical sciences, research and development (R&D) paradigms with a track record of producing ‘moonshot’-scale breakthroughs – such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) model – stand at the ready. The Biden Administration has recognized this, proposing the establishment of an ARPA for health (ARPA-H) as part of its fiscal year 2022 budget request. Done right, ARPA-H would be created in the image of existing ARPAs – DARPA (defense), ARPA-E (energy), and IARPA (intelligence) – and be capable of mobilizing federal, state, local, private sector, academic, and nonprofit resources to directly address the country’s most urgent health challenges, such as the high cost of therapies for diseases like cancer, or antimicrobial resistance. During a recent House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Chairwoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA) raised the Administration’s proposal for ARPA-H with Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, expressing her interest in exploring how to best position a potential ARPA-H for success.
Keys to the ARPA model
The success of the ARPA model is attributed in part to the high level of autonomy with which its program leaders select R&D projects (compared to those at traditional federal research agencies), a strong sense of agency mission, and a culture of risk-taking with a tolerance for failure, resulting in a great degree of flexibility to pursue bold agendas and adapt to urgent needs. Policymakers have debated situating a potential ARPA-H within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or outside of NIH, elsewhere under the umbrella of HHS. Regardless, it is essential that ARPA-H retain an independent and innovative culture.
The first ARPA – DARPA – was established in 1958, the year after Sputnik was launched, and is credited with developing GPS, the stealth fighter, and computer networking. DARPA continues to serve its customer – the Department of Defense – by developing groundbreaking defense technologies and data analysis techniques. Nevertheless, DARPA operates separately from its parent organization. This is also true of ARPA-E, which was launched in 2007 based on a recommendation from a National Academies consensus study report which called for implementing the DARPA model to drive “transformational research that could lead to new ways of fueling the nation and its economy,” and IARPA, created in 2006, to foster advances in intelligence collection, research, and analysis.
If ARPA-H is organized within NIH, it is essential that it maintain the innovative spirit and independence characteristic of established ARPAs. NIH already has some experience overseeing a partially independent entity: the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Compared to other NIH institutes, NCI’s unique authorities include:
- Direct access to the president;
- A requirement to submit a completely separate budget proposal to the president each year without getting approval from NIH or HHS; and
- The ability of the NCI director to form new cancer centers and training programs, establish advisory committees, and independently collaborate with other federal, state, and local entities.
This level of independence has contributed to NCI achieving a number of significant milestones in cancer treatment, including developing a chemotherapy treatment to cure choriocarcinoma (a rare type of cancer that starts in the womb), publishing the now-widely-used Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Model, and creating an anticancer drug for ovarian cancer that was unresponsive to other treatments.
If the NCI model were to be used as the foundation for the launch of ARPA-H, insulation from political considerations, whether those of Congress or the Executive Branch, would be critical. With DARPA-like autonomy, a potential ARPA-H could help push the boundaries of enrichments to human health.
Antimicrobial resistance as a case study for an ARPA-H
An example of a grand challenge that an ARPA-H could take on is addressing antimicrobial resistance, a worsening situation that, without intervention, will lead to a significant public health crisis. Antimicrobial resistance occurs when “bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites change over time and no longer respond to medicines, making infections harder to treat and increasing the risk of disease spread, severe illness, and death.” Microbes have the potential to gain resistance to drugs when not all of the pathogens or parasites are killed by a treatment, either because the treatment was the not correct option for the illness (like using antibiotics for viruses), or refraining from completing a prescribed course of an antimicrobial drug. The organisms that are not killed, presumably because they harbor genetic factors that confer resistance, then reproduce and pass along those genes, which make it harder for the treatments to kill them.
The most immediate concerns regarding antimicrobial resistance come from bacteria and fungi. The CDC considers some of the biggest threats to be Acinetobacter, Candida auris, and C. difficile, which are often present in healthcare and hospital settings and mainly threaten the lives of those with already weakened immune systems. Every year in the U.S., almost 3 million people are infected with antimicrobial-resistant bacteria or fungi, and as a result, more than 35,000 people die. While the toll of antibiotic resistance in the U.S. is devastating, the global outlook is perhaps even more concerning: in 2019, the United Nations warned that if no action is taken, antimicrobial resistance could cause 10 million deaths per year worldwide by 2050.
Developing new and effective antibiotics can help counter antimicrobial resistance; however, progress has been extremely slow. The last completely new class of antibiotics was discovered in the late 1980s, and developing new antibiotics is often not profitable for pharmaceutical companies. It is estimated that it takes $1.5 billion to create a new antibiotic, while the average revenue is about $46 million per year. In addition, while pharmaceutical companies receive an exclusivity period during which competitors cannot manufacture a generic version of their drug, the period is only five to ten years, which is too short to recoup the cost of research and development. Furthermore, doctors are often hesitant to prescribe new antibiotics in hopes of delaying the development of newly drug-resistant microbes, which also contributes to driving down the amount pharmaceutical companies earn for antibiotics.
Early last year, the World Health Organization reported that out of 60 antibiotics in development, there would be very little additional benefit over existing treatments, and few targeted the most resistant bacteria. Moreover, the ones that appeared promising will take years to get to the market. This year, Pew Research conducted a study on the current antibiotic development landscape and found that out of 43 antibiotics under development, at least 19 have the potential to treat the most resistant bacteria. However, the likelihood of all, or even some of these products making it to patients is low: over 95 percent of the products in development are being studied by small companies, and more than 70 percent of these companies do not have any other products on the market.
There is both a dire need for new innovations in the space, such as using cocktails of different viruses that attack bacteria to treat infections, and a gap between the research into and commercialization of new antibiotics – a perfect opportunity for a potential ARPA-H to make an impact. With this new agency, experimental treatments could be supported through the technology transfer process and matured to the point that the private sector is able to take the baton and move a new antimicrobial to market. This would be revolutionary for public health, and, combined with improved messaging around best practices for the use of antibiotics, save many lives.
The need for, structure, and possible priorities of a potential ARPA-H will continue to be discussed over the course of the congressional appropriations process, with consultation between the Legislative and Executive Branches. We encourage the CSPI community to serve as a resource for Members of Congress and their staffs to ensure that the new agency will be properly positioned to contribute to significant advances in human health and biomedical technologies.
Increasing equity and accessibility of research funds can help secure U.S. leadership in science
Just a small group of nationally-ranked universities are awarded the majority of federal research funding. In 2018, a study found that out of more than 600 colleges and universities that received federal funding for science and engineering research, about 22 percent received over 90 percent of the funds. The equity and accessibility of these funds was the focus of this week’s Senate Appropriations Committee hearing held to discuss the budget that could be allotted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in fiscal year 2022. During the hearing, NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan emphasized that addressing research disparities and establishing far-reaching partnerships were priorities for the agency.
Disparities in research funding
Disparities in research funding can greatly harm the ability of students to enter scientific careers, and diminish the potential of the country’s scientific workforce overall. The institutions that received over 90 percent of federal science funding in 2018 served only 43 percent of all students in the U.S., and only 34 percent of students from underrepresented groups. So two-thirds of underrepresented minorities and almost 70 percent of Pell grant recipients (who are undergraduates with “exceptional financial needs”) have more limited access to valuable opportunities to participate in scientific research. At the same time, researchers argue that incorporating diverse perspectives and talents leads to more innovative solutions, and that not including underrepresented minorities in science will only harm the U.S.’ competitiveness.
NSF’s most well-known program to address research funding disparities is the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). This program, which is now over 40 years old, partners with institutions of higher education to stimulate sustainable improvements in research and development capacity in specific states. States (as well as U.S. territories and DC) become eligible for EPSCoR funding if they receive 0.75 percent or less of total NSF research and related activities funding over the previous three years. Studies have shown that states with EPSCoR funding increase the quality of their universities’ publications, and that they become more competitive for future federal research funding competitions. However, more research needs to be done to fully assess the program’s impact.
Expanded access to research funding a priority for the Biden Administration
The Biden Administration has emphasized the importance of addressing research funding accessibility in the FY 2022 skinny budget request, which highlights the President’s top spending priorities for the next year in advance of the release of the full request for each agency. Specifically, President Biden is requesting $100 million for programs that “aim to increase participation in science and engineering of individuals from racial and ethnic groups, who are traditionally underrepresented in these fields.” This funding is intended to support increasing science and engineering research and education capacity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), as well as research on recruitment and retention methods, mentorship programs, and curriculum development. Studies by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) have determined that this type of funding is critical to ensure the success of underrepresented minority students.
Director Panchanathan’s priorities for NSF
During the hearing, Director Panchanathan echoed (46:05) that more needs to be done to tap into the U.S.’ potential scientific talent. His two main priorities for NSF are to increase access to scientific research through regional innovation accelerators and to strengthen partnerships with other agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE) and its national laboratories. The regional accelerators would rely on an expanded EPSCoR program, as well as support from other NSF directorates. NSF is also working to expand artificial intelligence (AI) research to every state to tap into as much talent as possible. Last year, NSF distributed grants to develop seven AI institutes which have operations in 20 different states. Director Panchanathan hopes (46:45) to expand this further in the coming years. This idea of widely-distributed hubs aligns with a new proposal from FAS’ Day One Project that suggests a path forward for the creation of innovation ecosystems that would launch new startup ideas and cultivate the next generation of research and development talent.
Regarding strengthening partnerships with DOE, NSF collaborates with the agency on a variety of programs, including the development of new algorithms to bolster the security and efficiency of modern power grids, the creation of collaborative robots to assist humans with a variety of tasks, and the advancement of basic plasma research and education. NSF historically focuses on basic research, while DOE, and its national labs in particular, drive the commercialization of new technologies. Director Panchanathan aims (1:22:06) to further develop relationships with the agency to more closely connect NSF’s basic research strengths with DOE’s expertise in technology transfer and ensuring cutting-edge research and technologies are commercialized in the U.S., instead of by other countries. By fostering closer cooperation between NSF and the other federal science agencies, the U.S. will be able to better compete with countries, such as China, that aim to supplant the U.S. as world leader in critical technology and science fields.
The future of research and development in the U.S.
Both the Biden Administration and Congress would like to accelerate science and engineering education and research to boost the U.S.’ domestic growth and global competitiveness. In the formulation of the FY 2022 federal budget for science funding, there will be more discussions on Capitol Hill about how to bolster the country’s expertise in high-priority fields such as AI, climate science, quantum computing, clean energy, and biotechnology, and harmonize the approaches of the executive and legislative branches. We encourage the CSPI community to get involved in future CSPI calls to action, and serve as a scientific resource for policymakers.
House explores the future of work at the close of the decade
Just before Congress left for the holidays, the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment held a hearing examining ways to prepare for the future of work. This has become a hot topic this year, particularly as presidential candidate Andrew Yang has incorporated it into his platform and elevated it onto the national debate stage. The issue highlights the societal and economic changes that are underway due to the development of new technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence. These technologies will cause major shifts in the types of tasks performed and skills required in our occupations, as well as the creation of a host of new employment opportunities. However, with this growth, there are concerns that low- and medium-skilled workers could be displaced and left behind. The federal government has a long history of administering job training and reskilling programs for displaced workers but these new technologies present unique challenges.
We asked our scientific community to submit questions and important topics that should be discussed and we provided them as an online resource for Members of the Committee before the hearing. The insightful, data-driven submissions we received included questions about lifelong learning, the expansion of apprenticeships, the decline in funding for workforce development programs, the impact of automation on the workforce, and the roles of the public and private sector in helping workers adapt to the future of work. All of these topics were touched upon during the hearing. Agreement between Members of the Committee and witnesses was most apparent on how the current patchwork of federally-supported workforce development programs are not enough, and that their funding should be increased.
Chairwoman Susan Davis (D, CA-53) opened the hearing by critiquing the lack of federal investment in U.S. workers. She emphasized how the U.S. government spends only 0.1% of its budget on workforce development, while other industrialized nations spend an average of six times more. This can leave valuable workforce programs strapped for cash and harm workers looking for help in landing their next job. In fact, displaced workers are expected to navigate the confusing network of federal programs on their own, needlessly extending their search for assistance and a new job. Chairwoman Davis noted that reskilling alone will be insufficient to prevent worker displacement and that government programs should prioritize lifelong learning.
Ranking Member Lloyd Smucker (R, PA-11) added in his opening statement that the Taskforce on Apprenticeship Expansion was created to reduce the red tape and establish new apprenticeship programs. To understand the complexity of the federal training program landscape, the Government Accountability Office performed a study in 2009 and found that the federal government administers 47 different job training programs in nine different agencies. Many of the current retraining programs target specific categories of workers, such as those who have been laid off as jobs moved overseas or those who are underqualified, instead of targeting the training needs for specific types of work. However, studies like the Taskforce on Apprenticeship Expansion’s 2018 report have found that training and apprenticeship programs focused on developing the skills that local businesses need to succeed are often more effective than their current federal counterparts.
The statement that triggered one of the more compelling exchanges during the hearing came from former Acting Secretary of Labor, Seth Harris. He insisted that the US does not suffer from an inability to find workers with the right skills, often called the “skills gap.” If there was an actual gap between workers’ abilities and the skills needed to succeed in the workforce, wages would dramatically increase for workers with the right skills and employers would spend more money on training their employees to learn those skills. This has not happened. He explained that the skills gap argument blames workers for not knowing what skills would be in demand when choosing an education, instead of acknowledging a systemic disconnect between degree and certification processes and employers’ needs, the lack of apprenticeships, and reduced funding for on-the-job training.
When Representative Mark Takano (D, CA-41) asked what Congress can do to help, Mr. Harris advocated for more transparency in the credentialing system and stronger Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training (TAACCCT) programs to help people get the right skills to succeed in the workforce. There are thousands of programs that claim to help workers earn certifications in sought-after skills; however, there is little data on which programs are actually effective. More transparency into the success rates of these programs would allow workers to enroll in the best programs for their career plans. The Department of Labor’s TAACCCT program began in 2011 and awards grants to community colleges to improve their curricula “to help adults learn skills that lead to family-sustaining jobs.”
The creation of learning savings accounts for workers was also the subject of vigorous discussion. James Paretti, Treasurer for the Emma Coalition, emphasized that the biggest challenge will be for both employers and employees to understand that some displacement is inevitable and workers must be prepared. Stockpiling funds is one way that workers could automatically save for their future education and weather employment challenges. A variety of learning savings account models have been proposed, with workers, employers, and the government all having the option to contribute funds at assorted levels, similar to the contributions made to retirement accounts.
This hearing covered a lot of ground, but Members have not completed their fact-finding into the future of work. Chairwoman Davis announced that her Committee will be holding another hearing about this critical issue. As Congress prepares to dig deeper into the future of work, we encourage you to email any data-driven questions or workforce topics that should be discussed to firstname.lastname@example.org.