June 7, 2023
Biden’s science adviser on the US push to compete with China

Biden’s science adviser on the US push to compete with China

Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), speaks during the ARPA-E Energy.

Arati Prabhakar was confirmed in early October as US President Joe Biden’s new science adviser.Credit: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg/Getty

US President Joe Biden’s latest budget request outlined his vision for a US economy that is fueled by science, innovation and a bullish brand of industrial policy. Although it is likely to hit a wall in Congress, now divided between a Republican-led House of Representatives and a Democrat-led Senate, the request follows a trio of historic funding bills that are already enabling investments in everything from climate and public-health technologies to domestic semiconductor manufacturing, as well as activities intended to promote scientific and economic competitiveness with China.

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

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

How is your experience at NIST and DARPA, as well as in the private sector, playing into your new role at the OSTP?

Last year, when I got the call from the White House, I was at a point where I had gotten to spend half of my professional life in public service and half in Silicon Valley. Those experiences had given me different vantage points on the complex and really rich innovation system that we have. The role of science and technology and innovation has always been to blow open new pathways that just weren’t visible before, and make new ways to meet our aspirations. That’s really why I came here, because this position is the one place where you sit and look at the entire chessboard. We need to keep making [the innovation system] stronger, but we also need to shape it so that it’s better at meeting our aspirations in these times.

The Biden administration has secured significant legislation to promote science and innovation over the coming decade. What’s next?

Implementing these major investments. That is how the work that our research community has done for decades translates into changes in the lives of Americans, when you can count on the semiconductor supply chains, when there are these rich, robust, wonderful, new jobs and industries. There’s a lot that’s underway, and our job now is to make sure that [this agenda] really does deliver.

The CHIPS and Science Act focused in part on semiconductor supply chains and competitiveness with China. How important is that?

I grew up in the semiconductor field. It’s been really clear since [the mid-1980s] that the American semiconductor industry was globalizing, and then got dangerously concentrated in one part of the world. And for literally decades, I’ve watched us not do anything about that, to the detriment of our national security and our economic competitiveness. And then this amazing thing happened last summer: the CHIPS and Science bill passed. The work that’s on all of our plates now in the administration is to implement that in a way that really does achieve our objective of resilient supply chains that support good-paying jobs.

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

Absolutely, you don’t have the luxury of just solving one problem at a time. Clean energy is a great example: it is absolutely essential to decarbonize and deal with the climate crisis, but in doing it we have the opportunity to build industries and jobs here at home.

What about new industries?

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

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

We just have to be very clear about two things that are simultaneously true. One is that the geopolitics in our world have changed, that China’s behaviour has changed, that we face some very, very real threats and that we are in a competition. And at the same time, we need to be clear about our values, that individuals need to be treated fairly and that xenophobia has no place in this conversation. Navigating to practical ways to manage these multiple issues — that’s the work that we’re all doing right now.

US society is sharply divided, politically-speaking. Do you worry about science itself becoming a victim of political polarization?

We are in a challenging time for the country. The role that we play in the scientific community is an important one, and in my mind, it begins by being really clear about what our contribution is. Science contributes facts. Those facts have to be weighed along with values to make choices. I do think we can do a little bit better on how we provide information into the fracas. At the end of the day, I think this is a country, and a world, that continues to respect and appreciate what scientists and engineers contribute.

By the time I got here, it had been about seven months, and Alondra Nelson was the acting director [of the OSTP]. She did a tremendous job of pouring 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 get big things done, and that is 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 work is treating every individual with dignity, being direct with each other and working together to achieve these important goals we have. We’ve continued to build from there.

Looking forward, are we moving fast enough to address the challenges facing the nation and the world?

Well, we’re 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 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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