Technology & Innovation

CHIPS and Science Highlights: National Strategy

08.09.22 | 4 min read | Text by Matt Hourihan

Many aspects of the CHIPS And Science Act have gotten significant attention, but one potentially consequential section for U.S. science has been almost wholly overlooked: a requirement that the U.S. government establish a national science and technology strategy.

Strategy development is a well-established function for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), but usually these strategies are focused on narrow topics like climate science or agricultural innovation. What’s new in CHIPS is the requirement for an overarching, top-to-bottom assessment and strategy covering all areas of S&T.

We’ll see how it plays out in practice, and whether it has the impact the bill’s authors intend. But in the best-case scenario, the new strategy could provide a bold vision to inform federal science investment.

What The Bill Requires

In reality, CHIPS requires not one, not two, but three different strategy documents from OSTP, in consultation with other federal agencies, White House councils, bodies like the National Science Board, and nongovernmental organizations including industry and universities.

CHIPS Section 10613 creates a quadrennial S&T review, which OSTP will have to deliver by the end of next year (and every four years thereafter – until 2032, when the requirement expires). The quadrennial review is intended to be a “comprehensive examination” of U.S. science, with input from a wide range of institutions inside and outside government. It will also make policy and investment recommendations in areas like industrial innovation, science for social challenges, the STEM workforce, tech transfer, regional innovation, and U.S. research leadership.

One year after the quadrennial assessment, CHIPS requires another more concrete policy strategy, with programmatic recommendations to achieve key goals and research priorities.

Lastly, the bill requires a periodic S&T supplement to support the annual National Defense Strategy. This third document will cover many of the same topics as the above, but with a national security and economic security frame. It will also deal with questions like startup barriers, research security, and federal program effectiveness.

This three-pronged approach – perhaps a bit overkill – reflects a blend of the visions of the Senate (which wanted the national security strategy) and House (which wanted the other two). 

Will These Matter?

There are a few reasons these strategies could be useful for the U.S. science enterprise. One simple reason is that they should provide useful context to inform agencies and Congress. How is the U.S. faring globally in science? What are the weaknesses, bottlenecks, and emerging trends? Which sectors are seeing threatened leadership? Working to answer these questions always provides important context for policymakers and can help drive national priorities. The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics does provide some of this information now – and should certainly play a significant part in the broader reviews – but now these analyses should feature more prominently in the policy stream, with broader scope and perhaps greater visibility. 

The requirements also give government a strategic framework for making investment decisions, which is a device many of our global competitors employ. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is the key cog in the federal budget system, and will be at the table alongside other agencies and offices. OMB already works with OSTP to set R&D priorities in the annual budget process. The new strategy requirements don’t alter that process – which is rather fragmented and bottom-up – but they could provide a nudge for coordination and big-picture thinking on a whole-of-government basis. 

Interestingly, these strategies may also provide an avenue for systemic reform: the quadrennial review is required to evaluate “policies that hinder research and development in the United States.” This could provide an opening for experts to recommend policies to enhance research productivity or reduce administrative burden, for instance.

All that said, one should be wary of overstating the benefits. Whatever the quality of the new strategy, it will still be up to policymakers, agencies, and appropriators to follow it with action. In so doing, they’ll have to balance an array of competing needs, goals, and ideas from internal and external stakeholders. Buy-in shouldn’t be treated as a forgone conclusion.

The requirements also set up some strange timing. For example, the quadrennial review is due at the end of 2023, and the policy strategy at the end of 2024, a presidential election year. If there’s a change in the Oval Office, would a new administration disregard the work of the prior OSTP? What about in 2028 or 2032?

At the very least, the strategy exercise should provide a fascinating near-term experiment in U.S. science policymaking – and in the long run, could provide a tool for furthering U.S. leadership in science and technology.