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Biden’s science adviser is pushing America to compete with China

Aarti Prabhakar was confirmed as the new science advisor to US President Joe Biden in early October. Credit: Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg / Getty

US President Joe Biden’s latest budget request outlined his vision for an American economy driven by science, innovation and an increasingly aggressive brand of industrial policy. Although it is likely to hit a wall in Congress, which is now split between a Republican-led House of Representatives and a Democrat-led Senate, the request follows a trio of historic funding bills that have already been passed on climate and Enabling investments in everything from public-health. technologies for domestic semiconductor manufacturing, as well as activities aimed at promoting scientific and economic competitiveness with China.

Nature discussed this science-forward roadmap with Biden’s chief science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Aarti Prabhakar, who gave some of the first interviews to the media last week since being confirmed in early October. Given. An applied physicist, Prabhakar previously headed both the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and has a long history of working in Silicon Valley.

Both confident and optimistic, despite the challenges facing the world, Prabhakar says the future is for us to write.

How has your experience with NIST and DARPA, as well as in the private sector, been in your new role at OSTP?

Last year, when I got the call from the White House, I was at the point where I had got to spend half my professional life in public service and the other half in Silicon Valley. Those experiences gave me different vantage points on the complex and truly rich innovation system that we have. The role of science and technology and innovation has always been to open up new avenues that were not visible before, and create new ways to meet our aspirations. Actually I have come here because this position is a place where you sit and watch the whole chessboard. we must keep making [the innovation system] Strong, but we also need to shape it so that it is better able to meet our aspirations at the moment.

The Biden administration has secured important legislation to boost science and innovation in the coming decade. What will happen next?

implementing these major investments. That’s how the work our research community has done for decades turns into change in the lives of Americans, when it’s prosperous, strong, amazing, new jobs and industries you can count on in semiconductor supply chains. There’s a lot going on, and it’s our job now to make sure [this agenda] really gives.

The Chips and Science Act focuses on the semiconductor supply chain and competition with China. How important is that?

I grew up in the semiconductor field. it’s really clear since [the mid-1980s] The US semiconductor industry was globalizing, and then became dangerously concentrated in one part of the world. And in fact for decades, I’ve watched as we do nothing about it, to the detriment of our national security and our economic competitiveness. And then last summer this amazing thing happened: The Chips and Science Bill passed. The task we now have on all our plates in the administration is to implement this in a way that truly achieves our objective of resilient supply chains that support good-paying jobs.

And it’s not just semiconductors, but climate investing and energy technologies, right?

Of course, you don’t have the luxury of only solving one problem at a time. Clean energy is a great example: getting out of and tackling the climate crisis is absolutely necessary, but in doing so we have the opportunity to create industry and jobs here at home.

What about new industries?

One in which we’ve done some real work is biomanufacturing. We have an established biotech industry for pharmaceuticals and a few other products, but research has opened up a horizon for using biology to solve many more problems with new materials, new chemistry, new structures that The world has never seen before. This is an industry that will take over the world, and we must act now and make sure that happens here in the United States in ways that support jobs and economic growth.

Given the renewed tensions between the countries, how can the US government compete with China and address national security while maintaining scientific openness?

We just have to be very clear about two things that are true at the same time. One is that the geopolitics in our world have changed, that China’s behavior has changed, that we face some very real threats and we are in a competition. And at the same time, we must be clear about our values, that individuals deserve to be treated fairly, and that xenophobia has no place in this conversation. Navigating practical ways to manage these various issues – that’s what we’re working on now.

Politically speaking, American society is increasingly divided. Are you concerned that science itself is becoming a victim of political polarisation?

We are in challenging times for the country. The role we play in the scientific community is an important one, and to my mind, it starts with being clear about exactly what our contribution is. Science contributes facts. Those facts have to be weighed against the values ​​in order to make a choice. I think we can do a little better about how we provide information in uproar. At the end of the day, I think it is a country, and a world, that continues to respect and appreciate the contributions of scientists and engineers.

By the time I got here, it had been about seven months, and Alondra Nelson was the acting director [of the OSTP], He did a tremendous job of showering love on this organization. What I found was a cadre of people who are not only incredibly qualified, but who were running to work in the morning to do great things, and that’s exactly what you want in an organization. When I walked in the door, I tried to be very clear about my expectations: The way we operate is to treat each person with respect, to be direct with each other, and to use these tools that we have. Working together to achieve important goals. We’ve continued to build from there.

Looking ahead, are we moving fast enough to address the challenges facing the country and the world?

Well, we are in the business of science, technology and innovation. Our job is to change the arc of the future, and I think we’re the luckiest people because we have the agency to make those dreams come true.

So it’s really up to us.

No pressure, right?

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


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