Advances in technologies may aid farm-to-fork traceability, which could identify cost savings, new value chains, and could assess the “true cost” of food. There has also been a reduction in arable land due to climate change along with the increasing population, urbanization, and diminishing water supply. Combined with controlled-environment agriculture, in which food is grown indoors in climate-controlled conditions, IT could be used to optimize the growing environment and lower costs, risk, and waste. On a smaller scale new start-ups are building automated, bookcase-sized hydroponic units that allow restaurants to serve fresh produce grown on site.
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There are many examples of confluence beyond those above. For example, the application of IT to national security is of utmost national importance and draws on well-developed mechanisms for federal research and development support.
Past returns on federal investments in information technology (IT) research have been extraordinary for both U.S. society and the U.S. economy. When companies—both those in the IT sector and those that rely on IT for their own innovation—create successful new products and services using the ideas and workforce that result from federally sponsored IT research, they repay the nation handsomely in jobs, tax revenues, productivity increases, and world leadership.
Prior publications in this series of reports have focused on the creation and scaling up of IT companies by an innovation ecosystem fueled by a government-industry-academic partnership. This report builds on this to highlight two significant patterns of cumulative impact of fundamental research on the U.S. economy that play out alongside the traditional narrative of academic research fueling industry exploration and business success.
The first pattern, confluence, points to the transformative role of IT research in sectors that are not IT per se, but now rely on IT, not only for day-to-day operations but for transformative innovations that advance the business of the sectors. The economic impact contributes trillions of dollars annually to the U.S. gross domestic product. These impacts are seen across many sectors of the U.S. economy—some better known such as health and entertainment and others perhaps less well known such as agriculture—and reflect the fundamental role of IT in companies that make up the day-to-day life in the United States. This economic impact is extraordinarily difficult to quantify but one gets a sense of its pervasiveness and significance
by considering, as this report does in Chapter 1, what it would mean for society to spend a day without IT. This innovation and economic impact have deep roots in federally sponsored research and decades of innovation.
The second pattern, resurgence, points to uneven paths of research that surge then stall then reignite, often relying in the end on adjacent factors such as increasing computing power and data resources as well as development of new insights, to break through to sustained economic impact.
The economic impact of fundamental research in IT, including these patterns of confluence and resurgence, relies on a complex ecosystem unlike any other in the world. This ecosystem includes federally funded academic research playing a major role in tandem with industry funding and partnership with a greater focus on near-term, nonappropriable research. Although start-up companies coming out of universities continue to act as an important conduit for research impact, other combinations of academic and industry collaboration play major roles, including the wide and open sharing of industry advances by companies for use by universities and start-ups, industry-funded university labs and consortium, and open-source communities. Another component, reflecting the confluence phenomenon, is research programs that pair IT research with sector-specific needs and opportunities. The health of this rich ecosystem is vitally important to economic impact and the flow of research ideas to both industry and universities.
Numerous reports have called out the risks to U.S. leadership in IT, both in particular areas of IT such as artificial intelligence and 5G telecommunications and more broadly across an array of technology areas. Today, especially with the continued growth and advancement of the IT sector in other countries, those risks have only grown. The United States has long enjoyed a vibrant, world-leading academic computing research community, a strong industrial base in IT, an ability to create and leverage IT advances, and an extraordinary system for creating world-class technology companies. However, the IT industry has become more globalized, especially with the dramatic rise of the economy of China, fueled in no small part by its development of vibrant IT firms and concerted investments in its universities and other research institutions, reflecting deliberate government policies. Other countries, such as India, Ireland, Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and some Scandinavian countries have also developed strong roles within the increasingly globalized IT industry.
Today’s research investments are essential to tomorrow’s world leadership in IT. Properly managed, publicly funded research in IT will continue to create important new technologies and industries, some of them unimagined today. Surely, however, some of the most important impacts will not have been identified in this report, because—as history shows us—many of the technological surprises and major