Biden’s Jobs Plan includes billions for research, higher ed

The White House's $2 trillion infrastructure proposal features R&D, climate, broadband and help for underserved.
By: | March 31, 2021
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The White House revealed President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan on Wednesday, a $2 trillion initiative to rebuild infrastructure, empower a clean economy and create millions of positions for U.S. workers.

Biden’s proposal – likened by the White House to the investment during the Space Race and America’s highways during the 1950s and 60s – could be the boon that helps the nation transition in a new direction as it tries to recover from the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and what his team says has been years of neglect.

At the heart of the plan, which likely will require months to sort out, are huge commitments to broadband internet, roads and highways and billions outlined toward manufacturing and the promises of employment. One of its biggest high-ticket items is something near and dear to those who work in higher education: research and development.

The Biden Administration said it will be seeking as much as $400 billion to ramp up R&D and “ensure that the best, diverse minds in America are put to work creating the innovations of the future while creating hundreds of thousands of quality jobs today. Our workers will build and make things in every part of America, and they will be trained for well-paying, middle-class jobs.”

Part of that will include a $50 billion to the National Science Foundation to develop a “technology directorate” that will continue to work with government, advancing innovation in fields such as advanced computing, communications, energy and biotech.

For Barbara Snyder, President of the Association of American Universities, details of the extensive plan were welcome news.

“This proposal would help undo years of neglect to the foundation of America’s scientific and innovation leadership by ramping up investments in basic science, critical technologies, research infrastructure, innovation incubators, and manufacturing,” she said. “We look forward to working with the administration and lawmakers on this and other proposals before Congress that will strengthen the government-university partnership and invest in the programs and research that have made America the world’s greatest scientific and economic leader.”

What else is in the package

Aside from investing $125 billion in helping build and rebuild infrastructure at K-12 public schools and child care facilities, Biden’s proposal includes help for community colleges.

The White House is pitching that Congress approve $12 billion to address a slew of needs including helping them “grow local economies, improve energy efficiency and resilience, and narrow funding inequities.” In rural “education deserts”, states will be counted on to help make those institutions safer and more technologically dynamic.

But Biden’s team knows that making America truly competitive on the global stage will only happen if bigger changes occur: namely in R&D.

“We are one of the few major economies whose public investments in research and development have declined as a percent of GDP in the past 25 years,” the White House plan says. “Countries like China are investing aggressively in R&D, and China now ranks No. 2. in the world in R&D expenditures. In addition, barriers to careers in high-innovation sectors remain significant. We must do more to improve access to the higher wage sectors of our economy.”

Snyder agreed.

“For decades, federal investments in research and higher education have paid enormous dividends in medical advancements, new technologies, and enhanced national security,” she said. “They helped produce high-wage American jobs and the most talented workforce in the world. However, in recent years, the share of our gross domestic product we invest in these crucial areas has declined precipitously; this proposal will help reverse that short-sighted trend.”

To that end, Biden’s team is proposing $180 billion go toward higher education, especially researchers and labs that drive innovation. That includes investments in emerging sectors such as artificial intelligence.

From that pool, $30 billion would go toward job creation across the U.S. and in rural locations; $40 billion would go toward improving facilities themselves; and billions more would go to Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions, which would include a new climate-driven national laboratory.

In a further effort to boost diversity and inclusion in STEM fields, the Biden team also wants to develop “200 centers of excellence that serve as research incubators” that encourage students to enter those programs.

Mentioned throughout the plan were workforce development, investments in all workers – whether or not they have high school diplomas or college degrees – and climate improvements, which also will be fueled by R&D.

“The president’s plan will expand the nation’s research capacity through investments in a new ARPA-C (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate) focused on climate-related research, renovated and expanded research infrastructure and laboratories, and other measures,” Snyder said.

The current proposal, subject to change, is just one piece of the overall plan by Biden and his team. The expected second half that includes education is set to be unveiled later this month.

The newest proposal is not inexpensive, with the White House noting it will cost about 1 percent of GDP per year over an eight-year period. But Biden’s team says it is worth it: to build a crumbling infrastructure that has laid dormant for decades; to get workers back into the market with competitive wages; to complete that last mile of broadband for all citizens; and to ultimately compete with other nations in 21st century endeavors.

Biden’s proposal includes a 7% corporate tax hike to pay for all of it. If it can’t be pushed through Congress with bipartisan support – Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell has called it a Trojan Horse – it might try to wedge it through as budget reconciliation with 51 votes in the Senate, as it did with the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan.