Obama vows to increase U.S. research spending to 3% of GDP

President says mix of government spending, private-sector initiatives will be needed

President Barack Obama today announced a goal of ensuring that 3% of the country's gross domestic product is spent on scientific research and development.

That amount would represent the largest commitment to scientific R&D in U.S. history, Obama said during a speech at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. But the president said his goal can only be achieved through a combination of government spending and private-sector initiatives.

The U.S. currently spends about 2.6% of GDP on R&D, according to the most recent National Science Board figures. That places it second overall among the G7 countries, just behind Japan.

To encourage increased private-sector investment in research, Obama said he wants to make the federal government's research and experimentation tax credit permanent. The credit has been extended multiple times over the years since it was first offered in 1981.

Obama also called on scientists to help improve America's education system. "Use your love and knowledge of science to spark the same sense of wonder and excitement in a new generation," he said. "Spend time in the classroom, talking and showing young people what your work can mean."

In addition, the government must take steps to attract and retain higher-quality science and math teachers, Obama said.

The president repeatedly framed his remarks with references to the early days of the U.S. space program, calling that period "the high-water mark" of government investment in R&D. The space program sparked a wide range of scientific innovation, leading to benefits that went far beyond the historic Apollo missions, such as advancements in building materials and fire-resistant fabrics, he said.

Meanwhile, clean energy is "this generation's great project," Obama proclaimed. He added that such work will be furthered by the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, a new agency that's being funded through the economic stimulus bill signed into law by Obama in February.

ARPA-E is being modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was created in the 1950s (initially without the "Defense" in its name) in response to the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite launch. The new operation will be tasked with doing the same kind of "high-risk, high-reward research" that DARPA has done, Obama said. "We will make renewable energy the profitable kind of energy."

Obama has proposed spending $150 billion over 10 years on renewable energy and energy-efficiency initiatives.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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