A commitment to funding science -- fundamental research and technological development done under the auspices of agencies such as the NIH, NASA, and DARPA (the R&D office for the Department of Defense) -- has laid the foundation for much of America's economic growth over the past half a century. Often wildly speculative, expensive, and with no explicit commercial purpose, this research nonetheless has a powerful spillover effect in the long term.
Government defense research gave us computer databases, the Internet, and satellite navigation; NASA put the satellites up and pioneered the use of fuel cells; NIH funding to map the human genome has already had a powerful ripple effect through the biotech and medical industries. "You cannot have innovation without a fount of new knowledge -- and that is what research is about," says Shirley Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
The U.S. spends a greater percentage of its R&D budget on basic research than most countries and is still the dominant performer of R&D in the world. The Obama administration has committed itself to the Bush administration's objective of doubling the nation's investment in key basic science agencies by 2016, and in May -- after three attempts -- the House of Representatives approved a bill that would continue funding to meet that goal. But even if the Senate approves the bill without changes, a close look at the numbers gives some cause for concern, says Patrick Clemins, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a nonprofit group.
That's because as a percentage of GDP, funding for scientific research has dropped from 2003 levels. What's more, the federal contribution to R&D is now below 1 percent of GDP, a commonly accepted minimum goal for economically developed countries. Meanwhile, our global economic competitors are seizing the opportunity. As a percentage of GDP, South Korea and Japan both spend more on R&D than we do, and although China still spends less, it increased spending at an astounding 20 percent compound annual growth rate from 1996 to 2007. "That is a growth rate that one would think is not sustainable -- but it is being sustained," says Louis J. Lanzerotti, a former member of the National Science Board and chair of the committee on science and engineering indicators. Though few people worry that other nations will catch up in the short term, says Clemins, there is a sense in the scientific community that the U.S. will face a real competitive threat in 10 to 15 years.
Bottom Line We think Shirley Jackson sums it up best: "We're riding on innovations that happened 20, 30, 40 years ago. One has to keep having ideas."