By Chris Unterberger
The definition of infrastructure has been hotly debated since the release of President Biden’s gargantuan infrastructure funding plan this past spring. The plan funds projects ranging from traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges to more fluid definitions of the word like internet and science. Roads and bridges are assuredly infrastructure. Internet is increasingly making a claim as a necessity to connect people. Science, however, has an interesting claim. Where would the US be without the stellar advancements in science and technology of the past three quarts of a century? The nation is highly dependent on the scientific community not only for innovation, but also for driving economic activity across the country. The president’s infrastructure plan acknowledges, appreciates, and advances on that dependency through increasing funding in the sciences, particularly through regional innovation hubs (RIHs).
INVESTMENTS IN INFRASTRUCTURE AND SCIENCE
On March 31, President Biden released The American Jobs Plan that described his much anticipated plan to boost the nation’s infrastructure. In a follow up to the American Rescue Plan his office helped push through Congress earlier this year, his administration is now focused on building America back better through the allocation of trillions of dollars in investment toward infrastructure that will in turn create jobs. In his plan he notes that the nation’s wealth, while enviable, does not translate to great infrastructure. The overall quality of infrastructure apparently lags behind twelve other countries. Due to numerous administrations’ divestment in spending on roads, bridges, water systems, and electrical grids on which our people rely, we see these structures quickly becoming outdated and nearly unusable. The lack of access to high-speed internet and affordable housing is also something to condemn. Within his Jobs Plan, Biden links traditional forms of infrastructure with societal infrastructure projects and investment. These include investments in training and education, participation of women in the labor force, caregiver support, and social equity. The Plan outlines six key components in which to invest:
- Highways, bridges, ports, airports, and transit systems (traditional infrastructure)
- Drinking water, electric grid, and high-speed broadband internet
- Homes and commercial buildings, schools and childcare facilities, and veterans’ hospitals and federal buildings
- Wages and benefits for essential home care workers
- Manufacturing, supply chains, R&D, and training
- Jobs that pay wages in safe workplaces that ensure workers have a choice to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively with their employers.
Within these asks is the necessity to provide funds for the materials and labor for such projects. But importantly, and what I would like to discuss here, is the outstanding need to fund scientific progress.
There is a short but growing history of investment in the sciences. The figure below, taken from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and sourced from the Office of Management and Budget, outlines federal non-defense R&D spending in billions of dollars over the past 70 years.
The exponential increase in scientific spending during the space race of the 50’s and 60’s has been unmatched, but the upward trend in spending over the past two decades is a comforting pattern to see. That pattern will undoubtedly continue upward for the next decade under the Plan proposed by the Biden administration. The Plan’s continued defense of investing in science—coupled with the president’s discretionary budget request (partially outlined in the table below) and the Endless Frontier Act—which recently passed through the Senate—seeks to distribute an additional $100 billion to specific areas of science and technology, proving that the federal government’s leaders are committed to keeping America at the forefront of scientific and technological advancement. Part of that commitment centers on investment RIHs.
THE AMERICAN JOBS PLAN’S INVESTMENT IN REGIONAL INNOVATION HUBS
The Biden Administration’s plan calls on Congress to invest $20 billion in at least ten RIHs. These types of hubs are commonly homes to foster scientific progress and incubate new technologies and ideas to accelerate their implementation into the consumer marketplace. It is in these hubs that it can be expected that new and exciting innovations will take place. They are not only vital to infrastructure because of their ability to create new technologies, but they also link urban and rural areas: their economies, their populations, and their ideas. Importantly for this plan, the investment in RIHs will spread success throughout the country, outside of the current successful and rapidly growing centers.
Geographic equity is not the only reason for this investment, however. In fact, it might only be a glorious byproduct. The main effect of RIH development is to increase economic viability to rural communities that will then support manufacturing. Biden’s plan calls for $52 billion in domestic manufacturing investment to innovate, adapt, and scale it to meet the needs of future America and to best compete with growing superpowers around the globe. Nearly all manufacturing comes from small- to medium-sized companies located outside of metropolitan networks. Beyond investing in the hubs that build the economies around these smaller companies, the plan also provides $31 billion in capital to small businesses. Entrepreneurship, the thinking goes, is the best solution to providing support to underserved communities. RIHs are the homes of these entrepreneurs.
America of yesterday was a wide web of communities that manufactured and innovated. From coast to coast, one could find bustling cities that hosted new ideas and propelled companies’ growth. The pattern in today’s nation is trending toward concentration in fewer and fewer metro areas as the degree of urbanization increases. However, the infrastructure for innovation remains in once-vital cities. Biden calls for $5 billion in the remediation and redevelopment of areas to turn idle property into useful factories, establish transport depots, and develop the workforce for a new generation of manufacturing. Essentially, turning Main Street into hubs of innovation.
The manufacturing priorities mentioned above all push for RIH development. The innovation within these hubs will necessarily include scientific and technological progress. Domestic sentiment is at the heart of these programs. The administration hopes to build the future of America in America. That ranges from traditional infrastructure projects to other necessities including investment in semiconductors with $50 billion allocated by the CHIPS Act, development of new manufacturing techniques, and the R&D to make these technologies better by building on existing RIH frameworks.
REGIONAL INNOVATION HUBS IN THE US AND BEYOND
Spreading innovation across regions is not a novel concept. RIHs exist in different forms around the country and around the world. These types of hubs typically begin as a pool to which capital can flood. From there, as they grow and their influence spreads, all sorts of innovation can spur, including advances in science and definitely profitable advances in technology.
Domestically, RIHs in Arkansas, Kentucky, Colorado, North Carolina, and Massachusetts follow the example of the RIH developed by the National Science Foundation’s Big Data Hub. Arkansas’s Innovation Hub is “dedicated to improving the lives of Arkansans by inspiring innovation and expanding opportunities”. Their facilities provide tools and training to innovators such as classes and workshops, innovation challenges, and professional development modules. Scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, and more enjoy these in exchange for contributing to the state’s economy, an investment in the future. Kentucky’s Innovation Hubs—located across the state in Bowling Green, Pikeville, Lexington, Paducah, Covington, and Louisville—represent the commonwealth’s approach to building hubs across the state and growing state and local economies. The hubs connect universities, companies, entrepreneurs, and accelerator and incubator programs by centralizing educational opportunities and pairing like-minded innovators on projects that require many hands. Other hubs based in Colorado, North Carolina (at Duke University), and New England (MIT) model nodes of the national hub designed by the NSF. Programs foster academic and industrial big data and data science innovation to deliver “socio-technical shared resources and services”. Through data science education and development of the data science workforce, this hub reinforces the states’ ability to use big data to deliver innovation.
International hubs also exist to promote growth in lesser-producing nations. The Water and Energy for Food initiatives build hubs across the Middle East and North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. The Middle East and North Africa hub suffers from water shortages, destruction to the environment, high unemployment, civil wars and other conflicts, and increased migration. At the root of those problems is a failure to provide food and water to the people, a gap which innovation hubs can fill to solve problems. The hub there helps scale enterprises—by providing investment capital and technical support—to meet the needs of the region. Notably, funded projects in this hub must address environmental criteria, ultimately leaving a positive effect on the deteriorating environment in the region. With similar motives, the West and East African hub aims to support water and energy-efficient agricultural businesses that are often stressed by climate change and political conflicts. The South and Southeastern Asian RIH plans to fund 40 water-energy-food innovative enterprises by 2024. These funds will help farmers who commit to increasing food production for the masses while maintaining or increasing water- and energy-efficient practices. Basic science is not forgotten in these international RIHs. I previously wrote about the importance of RIHs in the international scientific community. The collaborations initiated and sustained at RIHs (such as the SESAME synchrotron discussed in that blog post) are vital to building up the scientific community in the Middle East and in other regions that lag behind others in their ability to innovate and bring new technologies to the masses.
INVESTING IN REGIONAL INNOVATION HUBS
The American Jobs Plan has brought RIHs to the attention of those with the power of the national purse. Congress will review this infrastructure plan and see a line item totaling $20 billion dedicated to funding RIHs. That cost may seem stifling, but in the grand scheme of the investment, it is only a drop in the bucket. With the innovations that come out of these RIHs, the scientific (and financial) collaborations that begin, and the return on investment through regional economic activity that coincides with these hubs, there can even be discussion that $20 billion isn’t enough of an investment. Investment in RIHs will surely infiltrate the American economy for years to come. In all of the investments and plans listed above, the overall development of RIHs sits at their center. In all of the projects that will come from the American Jobs Plan, science guides the way.