Obama urges 'all-in' effort on tech innovation

Urges Congress to undo the threat past federal research funding cuts has made to the probability of a 'next great American discovery'

President Barack Obama last night urged Congress to increase federal research funding or threaten the U.S. lead in technology.

China and Europe, said Obama in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, "aren't standing on the sidelines, and neither should we."

"We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow," said Obama. "This is an edge America cannot surrender."

Any request for federal research spending has become, increasingly, an uphill fight.

The National Science Foundation this fiscal year requested a budget of $7.6 billion, an increase of 8.4% over the fiscal 2012 level.

NSF budget priorities include advanced robotics research, advanced semiconductor and optical device design, as well as cybersecurity. The NSF is a major funding source for computer science and engineering research.

The NSF budget bill approved this month by Congress set aside $7.1 billion, well below the president's request. The approved budget is only about 2.4% over FY 2012 spending, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). When inflation if factored, it represents a real-dollar decline of 3% from 2012.

"Federally funded research helped lead to the ideas and inventions behind Google and smartphones," said Obama. "That's why Congress should undo the damage done by last year's cuts to basic research so we can unleash the next great American discovery."

NSF research spending represents about 21% of the total federal budget for basic research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities. The Defense Dept., the National Institutes of Health and other agencies all spend the basic research funds.

Overall, defense R&D spending will decline by $8.4 billion, or 11.2%, from fiscal year 2012 levels, according to the AAAS.

The Dept. of Energy, which funds energy research and is the lead agency for developing an exascale system, saw its R&D budget rise to $11.8 billion this year, a 9.3% increase above 2012, or 5.3% when inflation is considered.

Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the Computing Research Association., said that the increases in the budget approved by Congress are well short of what the president sought.

The federal 2015 budget proposal is due March 5 and Harsha said he expects Obama to set "another ambitious target for research investments."

China is set to surpass the U.S. in R&D spending in about 10 years, according to one report. And China's increasing capabilities were CITED by Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

"China is also developing and fielding advanced air defense systems designed to defeat our stealth capabilities and our networked precision strike capabilities," said Kendall, in prepared remarks.

"From the perspective of technological superiority, the Department of Defense is being challenged in ways I have not seen for many years," said Kendall.

R&D chart
President Barack Obama wants Congress to increase funding for research.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS 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 email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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