Asia trumping US on science R&D
Federal funding for research has been falling in real terms. Is the nation's economic edge at stake?
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The US spends more on R&D – including industrial R&D spending – than any other country on the planet. At $344 billion, the US accounts for roughly a third of global R&D spending. Japan comes in at No. 2, spending $139 billion. China, Japan, and South Korea combined account for 27 percent of the global total, outstripping the European Union's investment.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet US R&D spending between 1991 and 2006 has hovered between 2.6 to 2.8 percent of gross domestic product. Japan and Korea, however, have increased their investments during that period to more than 3 percent of GDP. China has captured attention for its growth rate, rising from 1 to 1.4 percent of GDP in five years – the government's typical economic planning horizon. It's a growth rate that closely matches Korea's over the same period. This spending gauge often is seen as a better indicator ,than raw spending numbers of a country's commitment to R&D as an economic priority.
In the US, industry now appears far less likely to conduct basic research. The once-storied Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., which spawned six Nobel Prizes, reportedly has all but shut down its work in basic physics. Its parent company, Alcatel-Lucent, has shifted resources to math, computer science, and wired and wireless networking research – more in line bottom-line products.
The continuing resolution's effect on research, combined with recent funding trends, "is very hurtful," says Steven Fluharty, vice president for research at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. For three years, researchers in the physical sciences have been promised more money through the American Competitiveness Initiative. "It reaches a point where funding agencies issue calls for research proposals, but then the money doesn't come," he says. "It wastes everybody's time."
It also sends lab leaders scrambling to bridge the gap in hopes that the new Congress will pass a new budget, and not focus exclusively on the fiscal year 2010 budget. That would in effect freeze spending at 2008 levels throughout 2009.
"We're back in the soup here," says Piermaria Oddone, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. For now, he says, he can bridge the gap through March. "But we don't know what happens after that. It's very difficult on the staff. They know we're in deep trouble" if additional money doesn't come through.