Securing U.S. Research Strength

By Bloch, Erich | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Securing U.S. Research Strength


Bloch, Erich, Issues in Science and Technology


The more things change, the more they stay the same" applies today as it did in the 1980s to the U.S. capability to preserve the nation s leadership in science and technology. In the mid-1980s, the main requirements for preserving U.S. leadership included the need to change the research system to pay more attention to and accommodate the increasing need for multidisciplinary studies; the need to attract more students to science and engineering; the need to increase investment, including a doubling of the government's share of nondefense civilian basic research; and the need to leverage the federal support of that research by stimulating funding from industry and from state and local governments.

By some measures, these needs have been met, and the basic research base has improved significantly. Federal support for basic research in universities has increased from $5 billion to $13 billion during the past 15 years. Universities have been able to increase funding for their own research, with 20 percent of university research now being self-funded. And industry has increased its support for and--more important-dependence on basic research conducted in universities.

The results are evident: The United States has maintained its place at the forefront of science and technology. The nation is leading in the biological sciences, a field that has undergone a massive expansion in recent years. It is also leading in the computational sciences and the early development of nanotechnology. Universities and federal research agencies have recognized the value of and necessity for multidisciplinary research, as attested by the growth of centers almost beyond what was imaginable earlier. The competitiveness of many strategically important industrial sectors, including communications, semiconductors, manufacturing equipment, and pharmaceuticals, has improved.

More important, industry, government, and universities are increasingly interacting and communicating in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation to find solutions to problems. Universities, especially since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, have added technology transfer to their responsibilities, and commercial spin-offs from these institutions are common.

Adding to this positive development is the recent RAND report Federal Investment in R&D, requested by the President's Council of Advisors in Science and Technology, which reviewed the past 25 years of federal R&D funding. What emerge from the data are a number of observations.

First, no matter how we look at R&D funding--either in actual dollar terms or as a percentage of gross national product (GNP)--the past decade has seen major increases, from $188 billion to $265 billion, or an average increase of almost 8 percent per year. Similarly, the amount invested as a percentage of GNP, 2.7 percent, is at its highest level since 1984. Perhaps an even more remarkable trend is the shift in industry's share of R&D funding. In the 1980s, funding was split equally between industry and the federal government, but today industry funds 68 percent and the government 24 percent.

There are also causes for concern in the details of the report.

The inverse of the previous observation is that federal support for research as a percent of the total is declining, and research funding is more dependent on the country's moment-by-moment economic fortunes.

Disciplines receiving major research funding increases were the life sciences (a threefold increase in 20 years), mathematics, and computer science (a fivefold increase in 20 years). In contrast, funding increases for the other sciences and engineering were in the 20 percent range during this period.

Finally, numerous competitor nations have made greater advances than the United States in terms of developing human resources for science and technology. Many countries in the European Union and Asia have exceeded U. …

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