On Monday, Bill Gates attempted a commendable feat: to get politicians to focus on something other than the current election cycle and its partisan bickering.
In an op-ed published by Reuters, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft called on the United States to spur technological innovation by increasing its investment in research and development.
"Government funding for our world-class research institutions produces the new technologies that American entrepreneurs take to market," he wrote. But while other nations like South Korea and China have drastically upped their R&D spending, the United States' has "essentially flatlined." He said that the rest of the world's commitment to R&D is great, "but if the United States is going to maintain its leading role, it needs to up its game." His call for more government-sponsored R&D also comes as corporations pull back on their commitment to discovery and innovation. A 2015 study found that the share of publicly traded corporations whose scientists publish in academic journals had dropped to 6% in 2007 from nearly two-thirds in 1980.
In his op-ed, Gates said that he is a prime example of what government-funded research can accomplish.
I was lucky enough to be a student when computers came along in the 1960s. At first they were very expensive, so it was hard to get access to them. But the microchip revolution, made possible by U.S. government research, completely changed that. Among other things it enabled Microsoft, the company I co-founded, to write software that made computers an invaluable tool for productivity.
With more government investment, he said, U.S. scientists could completely eradicate polio and further decrease the number of deaths from malaria. More funding could also "develop the technologies that will power the world—while also fighting climate change, promoting energy independence, and providing affordable energy for the 1.3 billion poor people who don’t have it today."
Investing in R&D provides a firm foundation for America's entrepreneurs, Gates says, a responsibility that "has been fundamental to U.S. leadership for decades, and it will become only more important in the years ahead." It's not about the government "picking winners and losers," he said. "The markets will do that."
No matter who the presidential nominees are this summer and who wins the election in November, Gates says it's his hope that all Americans can agree that the nation's future will always include "an essential role for innovation."