There is more to the story than computer chips

Published 10:58 am Friday, June 30, 2023

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Tennessee businesses and families know the impact global supply chain shortages have on everyday life. When COVID-19 hit and global supply chains were disrupted, computer chips were in short supply, and the entire country felt the effect of U.S. dependence on foreign manufacturing. In response, Congress passed the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act. It aims to return chip making to the U.S., where the technology was invented.
But there is more to the story than computer chips.
Decades of offshoring hollowed out the U.S. industrial base across sectors. At the same time, public funding for science and engineering research and development (R&D) has decreased significantly since 1964, even though it is a key economic driver.
To turn things around, the CHIPS and Science Act authorized more funding for the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the only federal agency that advances progress across every field of science and technology. The last time Congress authorized a similarly big budget increase, it was supposed to happen over a few years, but it took almost a decade. We simply cannot afford to wait that long.
Science and engineering are crucial to U.S. global leadership. The way to revitalize our nation is to create good-quality, high-tech jobs for everyone, regardless of their location, background, or career trajectory, and to create opportunities everywhere for people to discover and pursue STEM skills and education.
This is important for the country and local economies, and it is how we can out-compete other countries who are accelerating their tech ambitious. China is striving to leapfrog the U.S. in critical technologies with a $1.5 trillion “Made in China 2025” initiative. This should serve as a wake-up call.
As we stand on the cusp of tremendous breakthroughs, propelled by Artificial Intelligence (AI), the U.S. must not relinquish leadership in this or other key areas as it did in manufacturing. We need to spread capabilities and training to more places that have yet to fully benefit. Currently, innovation is happening in just a few places – half of these jobs are in only 41 counties in the U.S.
Toward that end, NSF is investing $18 million over six years in a University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) center that will use AI to better understand and design quantum materials and systems. Thanks to organizations like UTK and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee is a leader in R&D. In just six years, it has catapulted 22 spots in high value manufacturing rankings, attracting billions from companies investing in electric vehicles (EV) and supply chains.
To grow and channel this momentum, we need more strategic government investments along the lines of the UTK AI-quantum award.
We know how well this can work. During the Great Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s financing fostered growth and bolstered defense, enabling the U.S. to enter World War II. More recently, Chattanooga became the first U.S. “gigabit city,” with some of the world’s fastest Internet speeds. This has attracted more business, bringing $3 billion in community benefits in the last decade.
And today, NSF investments are bringing together partners, which are catalyzing regional innovation ecosystems across America, contributing to Tennessee’s economic growth as well. UTK was awarded a development grant to lead TEAM TN, a coalition with over 90 partners – TVA, Oak Ridge, industry partners, state labor councils, all 37 technical and community colleges, one of the largest HBCUs, and more – to chart Tennessee’s path in vehicle electrification and automation.
In fact, NSF fielded more than 700 concepts from across the country for such Regional Innovation Engines. NSF Engines will accelerate research and tech development, turbocharging state and regional economic growth and jobs. But to deliver on this vision requires funding.
Computer chips are part of the story, as we pen the next chapter, the question is: will the U.S. continue to lead? The answer, for U.S. national and economic security, must be a resounding yes. With more investments, we can expand the geography of U.S. innovation and ensure that the supply chain for the next wave of inventions starts in America, is built in America, and is powered by American talent – with Tennessee on the leading edge.
(Randy Boyd is President of the University of Tennessee and Sethuraman Panchanathan is Director of the National Science Foundation.)

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