U.S. Innovation On the Skids

Technologists look to a new administration to reverse setbacks in long-term research.

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Washington Watch

The change in focus from long-term research to shorter-term development in the private sector has been mirrored in the government. While federal funding for "R&D" has not declined overall and has in fact increased since the early 1990s, it has been more and more focused on the short-term needs of government.

In particular, critics say, under the administration of George W. Bush, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- which gave birth to the Internet, computer time-sharing, computer graphics, LANs and much more -- has concentrated its research on short-term needs for warfare and homeland security. Today, DARPA funding tends to go to those who can promise measurable results in a year or two.

DARPA funding is now "short-term, applications-oriented, highly competitive, with small amounts of money and lots of reporting requirements," says Leonard Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an Internet pioneer in the 1960s. "That does not engender quality research."

In a recent bulletin to its members about the federal budget, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said, "Although high-priority investments in physical sciences research, weapons development and human space exploration help to keep the federal R&D outlook brighter than the bleak outlook for domestic programs overall, the FY 2009 budget continues the recent trends of declining federal support for research."

The AAAS said that the federal investment in basic and applied research would fall in real terms for the fifth year in a row under the FY 2009 budget proposal. Meanwhile, it said, other countries, including China and Korea, are boosting government research spending by 10% or more annually.

The AAAS also presented data that shows that despite a big surge in health research funding for the National Institutes of Health between 1998 and 2003, total federal R&D spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has been in decline since 1976. "Federal research investments are shrinking as a share of the U.S. economy just as other nations are increasing their investments," the AAAS observed.

The Technology Policy and Assessment Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology recently completed a study that compares the technological progress of 33 countries between 1993 and 2007. It concluded that China has progressed more, and more rapidly, than the other 32 countries, while the U.S. and Japan have slowly declined.

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