The Biden administration’s 2023 R&D priorities memo instructs agencies to support U.S. competitiveness in key technology areas, such as AI, including by experimenting with research funding mechanisms.
The White House released its annual R&D priorities memo on Aug. 17 to inform science agencies’ budget requests for fiscal year 2025. It stresses that they will need to make “clear choices” in the face of new limits on federal spending.
Issued, as always, by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget, the memo is the first to be signed by Arati Prabhakar, who was sworn in as OSTP director and President Biden’s science adviser last October. At four pages, it is less than half the length of last year’s version, but includes new references to priorities such as regional innovation, research security assistance, and benchmarking U.S. competitiveness in science and technology. It also encourages agencies to experiment with “new approaches” to research funding, such as by “streamlining processes to minimize administrative burdens, engaging new R&D performers, exploring new R&D methods, and forging new partnerships.”
Compared to last year’s memo, the administration is placing a stronger emphasis on developing “trustworthy” artificial intelligence. Largely unchanged are priorities related to strengthening the STEM workforce, promoting equity and inclusivity in STEM, addressing climate change, and bolstering national security. Pandemic readiness, a major emphasis in last year’s memo, is now folded into broader priorities focused on improving health outcomes and national security.
Priorities build on recent initiatives
Prioritizing national technological competitiveness, the memo calls on agencies to “harness science and technology intelligence and analytic capabilities to assess and benchmark U.S. competitiveness.” The instruction accords with a provision in the CHIPS and Science Act requiring OSTP to produce quadrennial reviews of the state of global competition in science and technology, potential threats to U.S. S&T leadership, and opportunities for international collaboration, among other dynamics affecting the U.S. S&T enterprise.
In embracing experimentation with funding processes, the memo reflects Prabhakar’s enthusiasm for challenging established models, a trait she cultivated during her time as director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Some agencies have also been developing their own ideas for experiments. For example, the National Science Foundation is considering creating a “golden-ticket” system that would allow individual grant reviewers to occasionally overrule other reviewers’ recommendations that NSF not fund a particular application. The goal of such a program would be to improve the prospects of high-risk proposals or ideas that are not fully accepted within a field.
The memo also backs recent efforts to foster regional innovation and workforce development. Congress lent its own support to such efforts through the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Biden administration has pushed ahead with NSF’s Regional Innovation Engines program and the Commerce Department’s Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs program, which the act authorized. However, the act’s vision for the scale of those initiatives is unlikely to be realized under tightened budgets.
As part of its focus on regional innovation, the memo also directs agencies to place continued emphasis on “emerging research institutions and historically underserved communities.” Recent agency initiatives along these lines include the Department of Energy’s RENEW (Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce) and FAIR (Funding for Accelerated, Inclusive Research), which focus respectively on workforce diversification through training and institutional capacity-building in research. NSF is also ramping up similar efforts, such as its new GRANTED (Growing Research Access for Nationally Transformative Equity and Diversity) initiative, which seeks to build institutional capabilities for supporting federally funded research projects.
The memo further directs agencies to support the academic and industrial sectors in “identifying and addressing research security challenges.” While protecting research against exploitation by rival governments has been a federal priority for some years, last year’s memo did not explicitly address the subject. OSTP and federal agencies are in the process of revising researcher disclosure requirements with the aim of bolstering research security, and NSF is standing up a “Research on Research Security” program to fund detailed studies in the area.
Among domain-specific priorities, the memo has a newly expanded focus on AI, which it calls “one of the most powerful technologies of our time.” It instructs federal agencies to develop new AI tools to “better deliver on the wide range of government missions, advance solutions to the nation’s challenges that other sectors will not address on their own, and tackle large societal challenges.”
The memo also calls for “tools, methods, and community engagement” that will guide the design of regulatory regimes for mitigating threats AI poses to “truth, trust, and democracy” and enhancing “safety and security; privacy, civil rights and civil liberties; and economic opportunity for all.” Those concerns mirror the “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights,” which the White House released last year, setting out principles for responsible design and use of AI technology.