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Public health tops White House federal R&D spending priorities

Image: City of Minneapolis Archives [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Health overtakes economic, security, environmental and space research on administration list

The White House has told federal agencies and departments to prioritise public health research and innovation when they allocate their budgets for the next two years.

In an annual letter to federal organisations on 14 August, the White House’s offices for R&D policy and budgets cited the Covid-19 pandemic as justification for public health being made the top spending priority.

Last year, health languished at number four on the list, beneath security, economic and environmental R&D.

The White House’s definition of “public health security and innovation” incorporates Covid-19 diagnostic, therapeutic and vaccine R&D; infectious disease modelling, prediction and forecasting; biomedicine and biotechnology; and the bioeconomy more broadly.

In the letter, Russell Vought, the White House budgets lead, and Kelvin Droegemeier, head of science and technology policy, said the pandemic “has highlighted the extent to which public health threats and challenges can impact economic and national security”.

All the targets for federal funds listed under the public health heading refer to Covid-19 or infectious diseases in general. The United States “must improve epidemiological modelling” and carry out simulations as a matter of course, rather than when crises hit, the White House directors said.

Some public health priorities overlap with wider economic goals. Artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing are “critical in ensuring rapid R&D of vaccines”, for example.

Other commercially important technologies picked out for funding include quantum computing, which also appeared in 2019, and 5G mobile internet, which did not.

The White House has highlighted AI and quantum information science for special attention. An August report by its science and technology office lays out how it will fulfil president Donald Trump’s promise to double non-military spending on the technologies by 2022.

The report sets out dramatic increases, such as at the Department of Agriculture. The White House will request the department’s AI research budget be swelled from $4 million in 2020 to $112m in 2021.

Most of the spending requests will be channelled through the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, National Institute for Standards and Technology and National Institutes of Health.

Under the White House plans, DoE, NSF and NIST will also bear most of the burden for an increase in quantum engineering R&D.

The proposal would see the 2021 NSF budget for quantum engineering research rise to $226m, $120m more than 2020.