Can the U.S. compete in R&D?
- By Derek B. Johnson
- Jan 30, 2020
In a Jan. 29 hearing on maintaining America's competitiveness in critical technologies, lawmakers homed in on strategies to boost federal funding for research, promote a stronger talent pipeline for tech workers and stay ahead of China in areas like artificial intelligence, quantum science and 5G.
In her opening statement, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said that over the last 15 years, the U.S. has dropped the ball by failing to increase spending to support research on emerging technologies, lamenting that "other countries have implemented strategies and invested significantly in their science and technology capacity."
"As a result, they are now retaining and attracting talent that once came to the United States to study, conduct research, and build companies here," Johnson said.
According to the Congressional Research Service, federal funding accounted for 66.8% of all U.S. research and development expenditures in 1964, but just 25.1% by 2000 after industry began funding its own research initiatives. A recent report by the Center for a New American Security found that federal spending in this area has declined as a percentage of GDP over the past 40 years, from 1.2% in 1976 to 0.7% in 2018.
Johnson floated the possibility of creating a new directorate at the National Science Foundation that would specifically focus on accelerating research into critical technologies, similar to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's role in the defense sector.
Diane Souvaine, chair of the National Science Board, said the idea would have merit only if lawmakers ensured it did not suck up funding that would otherwise go to NSF's mission of supporting basic research.
"A new directorate … could not thrive without the basic research seed corn on which things like AI and quantum are built," she said.
This week, committee ranking member Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), introduced legislation that would double basic research funding over the next decade, formulate a national, whole-of-government plan to securing the science and technology research base, support programs that grow America's talent pipeline and cut regulation in areas like technology transfer. The bill is cosponsored by 11 other lawmakers, all Republicans.
"I believe this legislative package will start a bipartisan conversation about what we need to do to ensure America's lead in the technological revolution of the 21st century," Lucas said during his opening statement.
While industry has made up an increasing share of U.S. technology R&D expenditures, companies like Google, Qualcomm, Symantec and many others can trace their origins back to research grants from the NSF and intelligence agencies.
That early funding directly supported Google's development of the search function that forms the core of its business model, and former Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt told lawmakers the company would not be the behemoth it is today without relying on that "symbiotic" research ecosystem.
"Your predecessors made these incredibly smart decisions 50 years ago … and we seem to have forgotten how fundamental this is," Schmidt told the panel. "Virtually all of Silicon Valley was either DARPA funded or [NSF] funded or university funded through that mechanism."
Even with more money, both government and industry are clamoring for more workers with science, technology, engineering and mathematical backgrounds to conduct that research.
"The core problem -- to be very, very blunt -- is that the knowledge of AI is so specialized, and very few of those people are in government," Schmidt told lawmakers. "We need a path, a plan and an approach that will get that talent into the government one way or the other: training, hiring, mergers, partnerships, you name it."
Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.