Federal R&D investments serve as foundation for US becoming AI-ready

To prepare for the next era of great power competition, experts urge the federal government to increase its level of spending on basic R&D.

The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, in its final report to Congress and the Biden administration last year, warned artificial intelligence will soon become “weapons of first resort in future conflicts.”

That warning, as well as the commission’s recommendation for the federal government to increase spending on basic research and development, remains urgent for the U.S. to remain AI-ready in the coming years, even though the commission no longer remains.

The commission disbanded in October 2021, but many of its leading experts have shifted to a private-sector entity, the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP).

The name stems from the Rockefeller Special Studies Project, launched in 1956 by Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger following the Soviet Union’s launch of the satellite Sputnik.

SCSP chief executive officer Ylli Bajraktari, NSCAI’s former executive director, said Rockefeller and Kissinger saw their project as a way for the U.S. to further define its national objectives when it came to defense, security and foreign policy.

“This is not the first time that we’re seeing technology playing a critical role in great power competition,” Bajraktari said.

That mission, he added, remains urgent in the present day. Unlike the Cold War era, however, when the federal government played a leading role in research and development, the private sector is now the driving force in R&D spending.

Bajraktari said the private sector’s R&D spending has obvious impacts on society and the public, but also holds major implications for national security.

“That’s why this is such a critical time, because of the diffusion of power, the diffusion of technologies and accessibility. Not just the United States government has access to these technologies. Anybody can purchase these kinds of capabilities off the shelf or online. This is a new momentum in how conflicts are waged, how geopolitics will be formed,” Bajraktari said.

To prepare for the next era of great power competition, Bajraktari said the federal government will need to increase its level of spending on basic R&D.

NSCAI in its final report urged Congress to double federal R&D spending for AI each year, until it reached $32 billion in fiscal 2026.

The Biden administration, in its fiscal 2023 budget request, proposes increasing the federal R&D budget to more than $204 billion, a 28% increase from FY 2021 enacted levels.

Part of that funding would support new and existing National AI Research Institutes. These institutes bring federal, state and local agencies together with the private sector, nonprofits and academia to tackle AI research and workforce development challenges.

“If we don’t outmaneuver and not out-innovate China, we will not be in the lead position when it comes to these emerging technologies. The lead position in emerging technologies ensures that our economy keeps progressing, that our society is using all the benefits from these technologies, and ultimately, our military has the latest and greatest capabilities, if they need to utilize it for warfighting purposes,” Bajraktari said.

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation’s National Science Board finds the U.S. remains strong in terms of global R&D competition, but global competitors are catching up.

Victor McCrary, NSB’s vice chairman and the vice president for research and graduate programs at the University of the District of Columbia, said the U.S. “still outpaces everybody in terms of overall global R&D.”

However, McCrary said South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, particularly China, have been increasing R&D spending in recent years.

“While the U.S. leads, that margin between us and our nearest competitors is starting to close, and I think that’s a concern from the White House to the Congress, to many of our business, universities, as well as the military,” McCrary said.

McCrary said basic R&D serves as the foundation for breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, quantum information systems, 5G, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing.

The National Science Board, under the National Science Foundation Act, is required to send Congress and the president a report on the state of science and engineering every even-numbered year.

This year’s report shows that in addition to being a top global spender on R&D, the U.S. maintains a competitive advantage by still drawing the best talent to its universities and companies.

McCrary said this talent pool gives the U.S. an international advantage.

“We still have the best companies in the world when it comes to AI applications and integration of these things,” he said.

Bajraktari said maintaining a high level of R&D spending is also a vital part of developing the STEM workforce necessary to remain competitive.

“If these are our comparative advantages, then I think basic R&D can help towards incentivizing students and Ph.D. candidates at universities to come up with next-generation AI capabilities,” Bajraktari said.

However, Bajraktari said federal agencies need to do a better job of ensuring private-sector tech experts have opportunities to lend their expertise to the government through short-term tours of duty.

Meanwhile, he said the Defense Department and the intelligence community need to develop clearer career pathways for AI and emerging tech experts to stay in federal service.

“The career path inside a federal agency is not clear-cut if you have a technology background. Until yesterday, this was considered an IT issue, but this is no longer an IT issue. We need the military to understand that if somebody comes with a coding background, you have to incentivize them and create a career pathway for them to stay there and get promoted and get incentivized — not move them around every two-to-three years, like we do right now. Because otherwise, you will lose the benefit of these individuals coming with these skills,” Bajraktari said.

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