China’s surging innovation investments are a wake-up call to Congress

Beijing is accelerating its investments in science and technology. Its latest moves should be a wake-up call for lawmakers.

China’s government just announced a staggering $52 billion investment in research and development for 2024 — a 10 percent surge over the previous year. In a telling sign of priorities, science and technology funding saw the largest percentage increase of any major area of Chinese government spending — outpacing diplomacy, education and even the military.

As China’s President Xi Jinping once declared, “We must regard science and technology as our primary productive force.” He’s now making good on that pledge. A 2023 study bankrolled by the U.S. State Department found that China has vaulted to the top of the global leaderboard in critical fields like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics and biotechnology. And China has become the top worldwide recipient of patents, receiving more than double than the U.S.

China understands that its economic and geopolitical future depends on winning the 21st-century innovation race. 

Yet America’s congressional leaders seem content to coast on the breakthroughs of the past, even as our competitiveness declines. 

Consider the findings of the newly-released C4IP Congressional Innovation Scorecard, which grades every member of Congress based on voting records, bill sponsorship, and public advocacy efforts related to advancing U.S. innovation. The results paint a picture of indifference, complacency and neglect: Nearly 70 percent of members of Congress received a grade of “C” or “C-,” indicating “only a passing interest” in policies to strengthen U.S. intellectual property (IP) protections, which are crucial to cutting-edge innovation.

This is simply an abdication of responsibility.

Contrary to stereotypes, IP jobs aren’t just for scientists in labs. IP-intensive industries make up over 40 percent of the U.S. economy, support 63 million jobs and account for 90 percent of the value of the S&P 500. They span all sectors and skill levels, from manufacturing to construction to retail. The average worker in an IP-intensive industry earns 60 percent more than in other industries, with half of those jobs held by workers without a college degree. Allowing our IP system to wither away puts millions of good livelihoods at risk.

Congressional apathy also threatens U.S. leadership in the technologies that will define the coming decades, from artificial intelligence to biotechnology to quantum computing. As China aims to pull ahead in these critical arenas, most of our lawmakers are asleep at the wheel.

To be sure, there are a few lonely champions fighting to keep America in the game. Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) have been consistent advocates for strengthening IP protections. In the House, Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) received the highest grade on the Innovation Scorecard, and a few others, such as Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.), were close behind. But these members remain the exceptions in a Congress that mostly treats innovation as a given, rather than the product of a carefully crafted policy environment.

As a result of this inaction, the U.S. patent system that powered generations of American ingenuity is now plagued by uncertainty and dysfunction. Court rulings have created confusion over what is and isn’t eligible for patenting, and Congress hasn’t moved to clarify our patent laws that were written generations ago. Copyright and trademark infringement run rampant online. Outdated policies are also failing to protect critical trade secrets and confidential data in an era of digital espionage.

The solutions to these problems are no mystery. Bipartisan proposals like the PREVAIL Act and the Patent Eligibility Restoration Act — co-sponsored by Coons and Tillis — would go a long way toward restoring consistency and predictability to the patent system. Modernized copyright and data protections could empower IP owners to combat theft and fraud. These remedies require a Congress willing to put IP at the top of the agenda, where it belongs.

America’s IP system was once the envy of the world — a crown jewel that turned entrepreneurial brilliance into shared prosperity. Then other countries moved to emulate our system — generating success stories of their own. Now, lawmakers’ indifference is allowing our system to erode and decay — just as rising rivals like China are poised to overtake us.

Nearly every member of Congress would likely declare that they are “pro-innovation,” but no member can be pro-innovation without also being pro-IP. For the sake of countless American companies and workers, it’s time for Congress to wake up, step up and champion robust IP rights.

David Kappos served as the undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office from 2009 to 2013. Andrei Iancu served as the undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 2018 to 2021. Both serve as board co-chairs of the Council for Innovation Promotion.

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