First World R&D Intensity Close to Stagnation?

February 20, 2006 by admin

The National Academy of Sciences last month urged the Bush Administration to increase spending on science by an extra $ 10 billion per year, in its report called ‘Rising Above the Gathering Storm.’ The report warned that without a major push by the US government, the nation would lose out to foreign competitors. Ignoring the plea, President Bush’s budget request for 2006 proposes spending $132 billion on scientific research is just about the same as the previous year and the amounts have been flat for several years.
And according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, (AAAS) a large portion of the funds that are being allocated to science are going to defense and counterterrorism and not to broader projects. In a letter to President Bush, AAAS president Gilbert Omenn noted, “We recognize the importance of a broad balanced portfolio of R&D investments, given the increasing interdependence of physical, biological, behavioral and social sciences and their application to technological advances for societal benefit.”

Decreasing R&D funding, decreasing number of students

“We need to invest more in the kind of high-risk breakthrough research that universities and national laboratories are uniquely qualified to conduct,” he said. “We do not want to put our country and our knowledge-based, technology-driven economy in the position of ‘catch up.’” Omenn also said the AAAS board was “deeply concerned by the country’s chronic inability to attract enough students into fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
Recognizing the dire talk about US math and science and seeing new competitors like China and India, President Bush in late January announced a major initiative that calls for doubling federal spending on more research programs in the physical sciences and engineering over 10 years.
Scientists and researchers in Europe agreed with the opinions of their US colleagues about R&D fundings. The EC emphasized while US R&D intensity decreased slightly in 2003, there is no cause for comfort for Europe as it reflects primarily the fact that large US companies have located a larger part of their new R&D expenditure in emerging countries, such as China.

Decreasing R&D funding, decreasing number of students

“We need to invest more in the kind of high-risk breakthrough research that universities and national laboratories are uniquely qualified to conduct,” he said. “We do not want to put our country and our knowledge-based, technology-driven economy in the position of ‘catch up.’” Omenn also said the AAAS board was “deeply concerned by the country’s chronic inability to attract enough students into fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
Recognizing the dire talk about US math and science and seeing new competitors like China and India, President Bush in late January announced a major initiative that calls for doubling federal spending on more research programs in the physical sciences and engineering over 10 years.
Scientists and researchers in Europe agreed with the opinions of their US colleagues about R&D fundings. The EC emphasized while US R&D intensity decreased slightly in 2003, there is no cause for comfort for Europe as it reflects primarily the fact that large US companies have located a larger part of their new R&D expenditure in emerging countries, such as China.

The problems take a long time to correct

Another vocal critic of the lack of funding, Leonard Kleinrock, professor of computer science at the University of California at Los Angeles and the creator of the basic principle of packet switching, agreed with Omenn. Europe and Asia are producing far more PhDs that the US, said Kleinrock, adding, “And I think the trend I see is that we’re losing the edge as regards to the excellence and leadership we’ve had for decades.”
“Traditionally funding in computer sciences has come from the US government,” Kleinrock said. “Frankly I’m very pessimistic because the problems take a long time to correct.” He explained because the pipeline starts with students going into science, it’s a 10 year cycle at least. “People don’t see the magnificent research agendas we’ve had in the past that set the tone for the future,” he said. “Now there’s no great science there.”
He pointed out that if the country itself lost its edge, “that momentum just widens the gap because other countries are moving in the right direction and the US is not.” “There was a time when American students were the most creative in the world, because they had the best technology early on and we don’t have that edge anymore,” Kleinrock said. “And that technology is available in so many places now and so young people across the world have not only equal footing but an edge over us.”

Asia is rapidly catching up

The latest statistics show that Asia is rapidly catching up the US in terms of spending on R&D. As a percentage of what was spent globally on R&D Asia’s share grew from 27.9 percent in 1997 to 31.5 percent in 2002, according to a UNESCO Science Report 2005, written by an international team of independent experts. North America still represents more than one third of the world’s scientific activity, but this share is diminishing. North America accounted for 37 percent of the US$830 billion world expenditure on R&D in 2002, down from 38.2 percent in 1997.
For Europe, the corresponding figures are 28.8 percent in 1997 and 27.3 percent in 2002, according to UNESCO. The relative weakness of the European private sector involvement in research is one of the reasons why Europe is lagging behind the US. The duplication of research in Europe, due to its many research institutions compared to the US, is also noted as a handicap.
Still according to UNESCO, in terms of innovation in science and technology research, Sweden came in first, ahead of Japan and the US, which were in turn followed by Finland, Switzerland, the UK and Denmark, while Germany, the Netherlands and France were losing momentum.
India’s share rose significantly between 1997 and 2000, but it still lags behind China as both countries challenge the Japan-US-Europe triad in science and technology. India’s share rose from 2 percent in 1997 to 2.5 percent in 2000 compared to China’s share which climbed to 8.7 percent in 2002 from 3 percent in 1997.

Not only the funding, the topic of research is what counts

It is not only the amount of research that is being carried out in the US and Europe that is causing concern. It is also the type of research. Enderle Group analyst Rob Enderle too wondered about the wisdom of the Post-911 shift of research funding to defense and intelligence technologies. “As there was in the space race, there may eventually be a dividend but the confidentiality of this work will make these dividends long in coming,” he said. “This is allowing countries, like China, to move, as a nation, much more aggressively and that could eventually shift the Intellectual Property value to one of these nations.”
According to Enderle, the US needs to think both strategically and tactically. “It will do no good to address the ‘Terrorist Threat’ if the country loses its competitive edge because the economic problems that would result could be more damaging to the country long term than the avoided terrorist attacks. “You could even argue that much of what has been done to stop terrorists has largely been ineffective because it wasn’t thought through,” he said.
Kleinrock too has problems with the now more focused nature of the funding. Gone are the days when Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded open research with long range goals with high payoff potential. Nowadays, “the research funding we’ve seen in DARPA has been smaller contract and shorter term focus and application focused,” he said. “And more demonstrations of meetings and site visits that limit the kind of problems a researcher can engage in.”

More competition for less money

With research spending one of the main victims of the budget cutbacks last December, EU research chief Janez Potocnik said Europe’s chances of closing the technology gap with the US and Japan, and staying ahead of countries such as China, are growing increasingly slim. “And we are not happy that the spending in important areas such as R&D has been cut as much as it has,” he said.
EU R&D intensity is close to stagnation. According to Potocnik, growth of R&D investment as a percentage of GDP has been slowing down since 2000 and only grew 0.2 percent between 2002 and 2003. “The most worrying conclusion is that Europe is becoming a less attractive place to carry out research,” he said. “The net imbalance in favour of the US increased in the EU (54 percent compared to 38 percent).”
The National Science Foundation (NFS) recently has taken up some of that DARPA role and is providing some larger and long range grants, said Kleinrock. However, in the last five years IT proposals to the NSF have jumped from 2,000 to more than 6,000, leaving many proposals unfunded. “There is much more competition for far less money,” he said.

Barbara Gengler

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