Joe Biden's letter

Image: Cyrus Saurius


Innovation even in method: the US president's proposal to shape a new technological future

The place of science and technology in the capitalist dynamic has just been repositioned by the largest democracy in the world. In a letter addressed to MIT and Harvard this week, the new president of the United States, Joe Biden, asks that new paths be recommended for the country's scientific development.

Biden begins by talking about the importance that a document similar to this one had shortly after World War II, tracing the paths of American scientific development over the last 75 years, and how important it is to renew this pact, due to social changes and changes in technology. .

One of the most notorious examples of North American scientific progress in the post-war period, above all for the excellence and rigor of the knowledge it produces, is NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), a public agency linked to the federal government of the United States, created in July 1958 to develop technologies and scientific knowledge related to space through systematic exploration programs. If in conception the agency created by then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower was a direct US response to the success of the Soviet space program, in the space and technology race of the Cold War, over time NASA established itself as one of the main centers of research in the world and even became the biggest reference for matters about space. In 2019, NASA received the largest government budget in the last decade, expanding the agency's plans to return to the Moon in 2028, with the construction of a space station and establishing a constant presence there.

On Earth, the ambitions of the greatest power on the planet are also high, with science as an instrument. In the correspondence sent to MIT, Biden points out five questions to direct the document and chart a new scientific course. Briefly, he asks about what can be learned from the pandemic and how to improve public health, asks about climate change and asks for analysis of how to remain a leader and ensure leadership in the technology race, taking China into account. Biden still challenges answers to how to ensure that the fruits of science are distributed among all Americans and how to ensure the continuity of scientific development in the US.

In socioeconomic conceptions throughout history, this effort to give centrality to scientific development has important precedents. [I]A careful reading of SMITH (1776) will find a prominent role for technical change. MARX (1968) analyzes capitalism as a system in which technological progress is endogenously generated. In the elaboration of Marx , already in the Manifesto of 1848, there is the attribution of a central role to technical change in the capitalist dynamics, perceived as a system where the process of technical change is permanent: “The bourgeoisie can only exist under the condition of incessantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, therefore, the relations of production and, with it, all social relations” (MARX; ENGELS, 1990).

Technical improvements are constitutive elements of intercapitalist competition, which seeks better technical conditions to make it possible to obtain extraordinary profits, ensuring productivity, growth and market gains, overcoming and dislodging competitors. The generation of asymmetries in the capitalist industrial structure, therefore, is easily derived from this reasoning.

Later, the so-called institutionalists, led by Veblen (1965) bring the decisive role of innovation. For this author, capitalist society always has a basic opposition composed on the one hand by the elements of aggressiveness, domination, conflict, business, acquisition, profit, money, absenteeism, private property, conspicuous leisure and consumption, pecuniary accumulation, social exploitation, and sexual, and on the other hand, in a more collective sense, disinterested curiosity, creativity, construction, production, collective property, cooperation, the common man, the engineer, the technician, the worker are articulated.

Schumpeter (1985) places technological innovation at the center of the dynamics of capitalism. The Schumpeterian heritage was the identification of emphasis on the so-called “radical innovations”, associated with discontinuities in the economic process: innovations associated with the emergence of new long cycles (steam engine, railroads, combustion engine, electricity). In the criticism made by [ii]Freeman (1994), Schumpeter underestimates the creative effort required for imitation and technology diffusion processes.

The connection between a theory of capital and this neo-Schumpeterian elaboration on science and technology seems to be on the research agenda of specialists in the field, seeking to allow a qualitative leap in the understanding of contemporary capitalist dynamics. But beyond these approaches, it is necessary to verify the concrete bets in a scenario of exhaustion and environmental, health and social crisis, with all the symbolic weight that certain inflections can generate.

There are several elements and indicators to measure/understand a country's investments and effectiveness in science, technology and innovation, as proposed by the Inter-American Development Bank. Some of them are human capital and knowledge, learning science and mathematics in high school, university and graduate degrees in science and engineering, number of researchers, investment and funding in R&D, connection between innovation, productivity and economic performance, export of technologies advanced. That is, there are several factors and a principle of complexity to articulate all of this and generate new forms of accumulation, development and competition. And on this point, Asian countries such as China and Korea continue to advance steadily and systematically.

To get an idea, in 2018 the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis showed that Chinese investment in research and development increased from 0,56% of GDP in 1996 to 2,06% in 2015. In 2017, the Chinese government increased the amounts spent on research and development (R&D) by 12,3%. , reaching US$ 254 billion, and reaching the position of the second country that most invests in R&D in the world, second only to the United States, although the difference in amounts invested by the two largest world economies continues to decrease. China already invests, in adjusted amounts, the equivalent of 88% of what the United States invested, with the advantage of having undeniable social and governmental support to transform the Asian giant into a scientific power. The Chinese government's goal was to reach, in 2020, 2,5% of GDP in R&D investments.

The most noisy current clash in this field between the two powers is the state-of-the-art 5G technology (fifth generation), capable of reaching speeds up to 20 times faster than the current 4G in data transmission over wireless networks. This technological possibility is capable of exponentially increasing the performance of the most diverse consumer products and communication devices.

This dispute is just one of the faces of the discussion about the support for science and technology in a world of vertiginous changes. What should be the support mechanisms and percentages? Questions of this nature, as proposed by Biden, should help shape the future of the planet, as long as they have in perspective the clear distinction between public good and private good. That is, how much and how activities for the public good must be supported by public funds, while private ones must have the marketing support of the private sector.

According to the National Science Foundation, with data from 2015, in the United States 71,9% of resources for R&D come from industry, 13,1% from universities, 11% from the federal government and 4% from non-profit organizations. It is important, however, to make a distinction. Although most US investments in R&D come from the private sector, it is the universities, with public resources, together with federal laboratories that undertake Basic Research, a type of investigation that does not produce results and/or immediate application, but with the greater long-term innovative potential.

In any approach we may choose, the contrast with the Brazilian scenario is notable both from the point of view of financing and investment, as well as the institutional environment necessary for the innovation process, which in the US has coordination and public intervention.

Brazilian difficulties in the scientific and technological field have become more visible with the shortage of equipment and tests to combat covid-19. Researchers from the Solidarity Research Network pointed out that these gaps could be minimized with a coordinated R&D investment strategy. According to the authors of note nº 6, although the federal government has foreseen investments of BRL 466,5 million for research and development related to fighting the disease, it published only two notices in the amount of BRL 60 million, with results expected for June, that is, so far no new penny has been invested in research on the disease.

Planning prepared by the then Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT, later Aggregates Innovations and Communications - MCTIC) for the period from 2007 to 2010 had as its central goal to reach 1,5% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). grew substantially in this first decade of the century, through the approval of fundamental milestones for the System, the percentage reached 1,2%. In previous years, this figure was 0,9% of GDP. Currently, discounting inflation, the ST&I area has a budget similar to that of 2001, according to the National Indicators of Science, Technology and Innovation, published in 2018 by MCTIC. After a growth cycle until 2015 (BRL 90,0 billion), from 2016 private and public investments in R&D began to fall, reaching BRL 73,9 billion, discounting inflation, in 2017.

The USA, on the other hand, allocated 6 billion dollars exclusively to research on covid-19, about 4% of the investment in R&D carried out by the government in 2019. Even so, an insufficient action in terms of transformation and technological competitiveness, as we can infer from the Biden letter.

If the volume of investment in research and development made by the private sector and the public sector constitute the great difference between developed and developing countries, the industrial leap counts, in addition to the proportions of financing, with a firm strategy, of a nation, aligned by unequivocal speeches by the main leaders. Nothing is further from what happens in our unbelievable and weakened democratic condition.

* Sandra Bitencourt is a journalist, PhD in Communication and Information, researcher at NUCOP/PPGCOM-UFRGS and eddirector of communication at INP.


[I] PAULA, Joao Antonio de Paula; Hugo EA from the CERQUEIRA Range; Eduardo da Motta and ALBUQUERQUE. Science and technology in capitalist dynamics: the neo-schumpeterian elaboration and the theory of capital. Belo Horizonte, UFMG, 2001.

[ii] FREEMAN, C.. “The economics of technical change: critical survey”. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 18: 463-514, 1994.

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