Wes Bush is CEO of Northrop Grumman, a leading global security company. This column is an adapted version of his remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Next Generation Dialogue: Rethinking Research and Development for the Department of Defense on May 26, 2015.
In 1974, the first model of the F-16 included 135 thousand lines of code. (I’m sure they were very efficient lines of code, for the record).
In 2006, the first model of the F-35 included 6.8 million lines of code. Today? The latest model of the F-35 includes 24 million lines of code.
Complexity, to put it simply, is compounding. And since World War II, these incredible advances in technology have been much in America's favor.
All through the Cold War, our defense research, development, test and evaluation (RTD&E) effort was adequate to the task of keeping us ahead of our adversaries.
But technological innovation is not a birthright that we somehow received in the United States. Innovation doesn’t simply happen.
Without a renewed commitment to research and development along with the partnerships that undergirded America’s efforts in the past, we will struggle to maintain the innovation ecosystem from which we all benefit so greatly.
Let’s start with a fundamental measure of a country’s commitment to R&D: funding.
Federal support for R&D funding comes primarily from the discretionary part of the budget, which is now at the lowest point as a fraction of GDP since the 1950s. Defense-related R&D in the discretionary budget has fallen from 1 percent (in the 1960s) to half a percent of GDP in the past decade. By the end of this decade, however, we expect it to drop to one third of one percent of GDP.
Those levels are frightening. They are simply insufficient to support the advances in technology our future military will need -- they may even fall short of what our current military needs today.
America’s competitors are growing their investments even as we cut them.
The 2014 Global Innovation Index ranked the US sixth, behind countries like Switzerland and the UK.
While China ranked a distant 29th, their rapid ascent up the list hints that they are closing fast. Measured in purchasing power parity (PPP), Battelle forecasts that China’s total R&D funding will surpass the US by 2022.
China’s R&D budget has grown faster than its GDP. Whereas the economy grew at an average of nine percent from 2009 to 2013, its R&D spending grew twice that rate in the same period.
Furthermore, we can no longer dismiss Chinese research as somehow inferior in quality. Chinese researchers are increasingly publishing in top rated journals and they may soon dominate research in a number of fields.
What can we do to secure America’s innovative advantage?
There is a clear need to renew our government’s commitment to scientific discovery. There needs to be an end to sequestration’s spending caps on both the defense and the non-defense side of the budget. There must be sustained, real, meaningful growth in funding for basic research by our federal government.
We need to make permanent a strengthened federal R&D tax credit to encourage more innovation investment here in America.
We need to continue to focus our efforts in addressing the workforce needs, in particular the STEM workforce needs, through science and math teacher recruitment, student development and college-level program design.
Our national visa programs need to be reformed to keep the thousands of amazingly brilliant international STEM students here in America following their graduation.
(If there’s one place I think we, as the defense industry, may have gone too too far in reducing our investment during the last economic downturn, it's in higher education. If we’re not making appropriate defense R&D investments in higher education, we’re not going to be drawing the bright, talented young folks that we want to draw into our industry.)
Costly, burdensome and unnecessary regulations need to be reformed to free up researchers to do what they do best – innovate.
We need to reaffirm merit-based peer review as the primary mechanism for major federal agencies making competitive research grants.
We need to stimulate further improvements in advanced manufacturing.
And we need to focus on innovating for affordability.
I’ll admit: That’s quite a long list of actions. But I’m encouraged by what I see in front of us. I’m encouraged because I see something happening in our innovation communities that, quite frankly, I think we took for granted for too long: recognizing the power of partnerships.
Partnerships are vital between all parties that comprise the innovation infrastructure of our defense community and, more broadly, our innovation community, whether they be collaborations between academia, industry and government or along the axis of basic research, applied research and product development. Partnerships, too, can help knock down the roadblocks we create for ourselves, whether in government or industry.
These partnerships were instrumental during the R&D, production and deployment of technologies like GPS, satellites, computer networking, stealth -- the list goes on.
Ultimately, many of those technologies spilled into the commercial world creating or expanding entire industries, and generating astonishing human benefit.
The relationship between the commercial world and the defense community has long been symbiotic. But between the two, the defense community is the biggest of the net exporters
Now, we stand on the cusp of a new effort focused on unmanned technologies, robotics, miniaturization, manufacturing advancements and many more.
This next effort stands to create great benefits for our citizens in addition to greater national security. If carefully managed, it could revitalize the defense community’s aging workforce with a new generation of eager, young, bright, committed talent.
And, just as in the age of developing GPS, this next effort will thrive or stumble on the strength of the partnerships between the parties that will have to work together.
Now, there are many pundits who have concluded that America is in decline. But we all know national decline is a choice, not a fate.
And if we are in decline, it is within our power to arrest that slide through making different choices.
In this, the age of innovation, technology, and human intellectual capital, one of the most important choices we can make is to do those things that support and enhance R&D and innovation.
The great technological advances of the past, present and, I’m confident, our future are expressions in metal, circuitry, and oftentimes in bits and bytes, of human ingenuity, human perseverance, and human vision.
They are not so much credits to engineering or science as they are credits to all of those who take accountability for the future: scientists and engineers, policymakers and business people.
As such, technological and scientific innovation is founded upon distinctly human characteristics – vision, inspiration, hope, moral impulses, love of country, and, yes, sometimes ego.
They are the qualities that move free nations, industries, and companies forward.
And because these are human qualities, they cannot be mandated, directed or imposed. They can, however, be cultivated and incentivized. And perhaps that is the most important way to support research, development, and the freedom to innovate.
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