Are Americans tired of a good thing? It might seem so. According to Nobel economist Robert Solow, at least half of the total growth of the US economy since World War II was brought about by science and technology innovation. And yet, since 1965, federal spending on non-defense research and development has been cut by two-thirds.
That's down from 5.7 percent of the budget 33 years ago to just 1.9 percent today.
But, you might say, America is booming. It's success in computer science, molecular biology, software, telecommunications, materials science, space technology, aeronautics, nanotechnology, sensor applications, and half a dozen other scientific fields is widely recognized.
So why worry? Maybe there's a simple explanation. Perhaps basic science research in the private sector has displaced much of that drastic shrinkage in federally funded research. Isn't that supposed to happen in this age of privatizing?
Let's puncture that notion right away. Yes, good firms, large and small, do a lot of R&D. But it doesn't cover many of those areas of pure science in which federal support has fostered research in the past half century.
A study done for the National Science Foundation found that 73 percent of the main science papers cited in US industrial patent papers in two recent years were based on research by government and nonprofit agencies - not by corporations.
That undoubtedly explains why some odd couples in the US Senate are sponsoring a bipartisan bill to double federal research funding over the next decade. The chief sponsors are Republican Phil Gramm and Democrat Joseph Lieberman. Backers include liberal stalwarts Carol Moseley-Braun and Barbara Boxer alongside conservatives Lauch Faircloth and Alfonse D'Amato.
In short, support runs across the ideological spectrum. And rightly so. Boosting research is not as politically catchy as saving Social Security in the next century. But it's every bit as important to the coming generation's standard of living. And to American competitiveness in the world. Japan, with half America's population, spends more than the US on R&D. Germany, China, India, Taiwan, and Singapore are vigorously funding research.
Ask Senator Gramm, Mr. Tight Budget, why he seeks R&D spending of $68 billion by the year 2008 and he succinctly answers: "We depend on science to provide jobs, growth, and opportunity." Adds Senator Lieberman: "Our current prosperity [is] directly linked to investments made 30 years ago.... You've got to ask where will this country be 30 years from now?"
Those are persuasive reasons to back the senators' measure. The only part of their blueprint to go astray is its insistence that 40 percent of each year's R&D appropriation be allotted to the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services. That may be savvy politics. But such a rigid mandate could hogtie science advisory bodies that might want to vary the portion for each science as priorities change.
Aside from that, we hope the Gramm-Lieberman measure will win broad congressional support and presidential backing. It's a needed investment for the next century.