White House sees 'real danger' China will soon take R&D lead

Spending on research drops as Congress pursues austerity

WASHINGTON - Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. continues to lead in spending on research and development (R&D). But the rate of spending by other nations -- China, in particular -- is increasing at a faster pace. This fact is creating angst in Congress.

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing today on U.S. R&D spending, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) the committee chairwoman, said that much of America's "exceptionalism" comes from its investment in science. "We cannot afford to let other countries out-invest or out-innovate the U.S.," she said.

But the committee's ranking member, Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), threw cold water on Mikulski's rallying call for R&D support, by linking federal debt and mandatory spending to science spending.

"An unfortunate consequence" of the government's other budget problems, said Shelby, "is the crowding out of important parts of our budget."

John Holdren, who heads the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the lead witness at the hearing, said that total private and public U.S R&D investments in 2011 was $429 billion. In second place was China, which spent $208 billion.

But China is increasing its investments rapidly, and Holdren said China will pass the U.S. "in a matter of a few years."

One research group has said it believes China will surpass the U.S. in 2022. But Holdren said that if China keeps increasing its R&D spending by 20% to 25% a year "they will pass us well before 2022."

The U.S., he said, is "in real danger" of being overtaken by China in R&D spending.

President Obama, said Holdren, set a goal in 2009 of investing 3% of of the nation's GDP in R&D. The U.S. is near that level, he said. But that analysis combines public and private sector R&D spending; when federal R&D spending is separated out, the picture is different.

In a letter to the committee, MIT President Rafael Reif said that from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, federally-funded R&D averaged approximately 1.5% of GDP; by 2011, however, funding had fallen to 0.8% of GDP.

"While the U.S. remains a world leader in total R&D, the current trajectory of U.S. investment levels is a striking departure from the strong commitment the country has historically made to R&D," said Reif.

There are also differences in public and private spending. Private sector R&D investment is often focused on bringing new products to market. Federal R&D research looks at basic, fundamental questions that may or may not produce innovative fruit.

The White House FY2015 budget sets aside $135.4 billion in federal R&D spending, an increase of 1.2% over current allocations.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said at the hearing that by "restricting and reducing" R&D spending, "we are unilaterally disarming" in the race for global science leadership.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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