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?

Japanese scientist Makoto Kobayashi smiles during a news conference in Tokyo after learning that he won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physics for discoveries in sub-atomic particles.

Tallying this year’s Nobel Prizes so far, it’s been a respectable year for US-based scientists. Four shared the prestigious awards – three for chemistry and one as part of an international trio for physics.

As congratulations pour in, however, some science-policy specialists in the United States see troubling signs that federal support for research – measured by checks written rather than checks promised – may be weakening.

To those involved in federally funded research, their work represents a kind of intellectual infrastructure that, if allowed to erode, can begin to undermine the country’s economic competitiveness.

The immediate concern is the continuing resolution the president signed Sept. 30. Congress punted final passage of the federal budget to next March. Except for the Defense Department, other federal agencies responsible for performing or funding research must hold spending at or below fiscal year 2008 levels.

These are trying fiscal times, acknowledges Pat White, vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities in Washington. Deficits and the federal debt are soaring. Unavoidable spending on programs such as Social Security, as well as interest on the federal debt is rising. And now the government is undertaking a $700 billion rescue package for the financial industry.

The budget’s math “is such that it’s going to be very hard to make any sort of dramatic new investments” in research, Mr. White says. “On the other hand, over the last five years we always find ourselves at the last minute fighting at the margins.” For instance, in fiscal year 2008, budget negotiations bogged down over $22 billion Congress added in nondefense discretionary spending, out of a $932 billion discretionary budget, he explains. The R&D portion of that $22 billion – at least among the government’s biggest R&D players –  was about $3 billion. Either way, “that’s not a lot of money,” he says.

Beginning with fiscal year 2005, federal spending on research has fallen off after accounting for inflation. The decline may advance into fiscal year 2009 with an expected revision to inflation figures, according to a recent analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The drop-off comes after a five-year sustained increase, driven largely by money Congress pumped into the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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.

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.

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