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U.S. Should Revisit R&D Spending Priorities, But Reform Cannot Occur in Vacuum 

Followers of ARPN have long known that China is the big elephant in the room. 

In a piece for the Wall Street Journal, Ezekiel Emanuel, Amy Gadsden and Scott Moore lament that while there is a growing  awareness that China may be the – in the words of Sec. of State Mike Pompeo “greatest challenge that the United States will face in the medium to long term” – the United States has largely responded with “defensive measures” like tariffs.

“[T]he challenge can’t be answered just by demanding that China plays fair,” they argue.

Their advice: 

“The U.S. needs to meet strength with strength, and the best way to do that is to renew a longstanding American advantage: innovation. To compete and win in the century ahead, the U.S. urgently needs to fix the mismatch between its declared national technology priorities and the deployment of our research funding.”

Emanuel, Gadsden and Moore point to an erosion of America’s lead in science and technology fields stemming from “steadily declining U.S budgets for basic scientific research and a lopsided emphasis on the life sciences to the detriment of emerging technologies.”

Against the backdrop of misguided U.S. government spending priorities, China has made massive investments in science, technology and engineering research and development – to the tune of $410 billion in 2016, which, according to the authors of the piece, is more than that of Japan, Germany and South Korea combined. 

And while private investment in R&D has increased, Emanuel, Gadsden and Moore argue it’s “not nearly enough.”

Indeed, targeted investments in R&D can yield great results — as some of the recent examples of public-private partnerships featured as part of our “Profiles of Progress” series have shown.

However, increased spending can and should not occur in a vacuum, but should rather be part of a comprehensive policy overhaul.   The mineral resource sector serves as a case in point: Here, decades of misguided government policies —  from the duplicative and lengthy permitting process for mining projects adding cost and uncertainty, to land access policies — have been discouraging private investment. This, as ARPN followers know all too well, has left the United States increasingly reliant on foreign mineral resources.  

As U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski recently argued in a Congressional hearing:

“In contrast to the energy sector, our nation is headed in the wrong direction on mineral imports. This is our Achilles’ heel that serves to empower and enrich other nations, while costing us jobs and international competitiveness.” 

Emanuel, Gadsden, and Moore are right when they argue “America needs to do what it does best: compete,”  but revisiting spending priorities is only a part of the puzzle.

What we need is a comprehensive policy overhaul of the U.S.’s resource development policy.

However, 16 months after the President issued his Executive Order on Critical Minerals (which has arguably led to some positive first steps towards mineral resource policy reform) we are still awaiting the release of a report by the Department of Commerce outlining a “broader strategy” and recommending specific policy steps to implement it.

Meanwhile, China presses on — both on R&D and securing access to critical minerals.