Education brings tech benefits—so why does the US continue to fail so badly?

US lags far behind in science, tech, math and engineering.

American 15-year-olds fared poorly in science achievement, scoring below the global median of 500 and most of the industrialized world.

For the first time, Washington did not settle for letting inflation cut R&D funds. It did so in absolute dollars too. The 2007 funding request for R&D totaled about $137 billion—down about 1% in raw numbers from FY2006. Much of the money that remains has gone to relatively low-payoff activities.

Since 2000, US federal spending on defense research has risen an average of 7.4% per year, compared with only 4.5% for civilian research. And not all of that funding has been well spent. In 2006, for example, 59% of US federal research funding went to defense projects. Of that, an estimated 40% went to “earmarks”—Congressional pet projects, often of doubtful value and usually chosen for political rather than scientific merit. Funding questions remain.

In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” It seems he meant it. The FY2009 Omnibus Budget provided $151.1 billion for federal R&D—an increase of 4.7% over 2008’s level.

Some research-oriented agencies received more. At the Dept of Energy science program, funding is up 21%.It helps also that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the so-called stimulus program, provided $21.5 billion for basic research—the largest increasing in funding that sector has received in US history.

Yet this one-time support comes after much damage has been done. Long-term funding for stimulus-based efforts is far from guaranteed, and without it we will see little lasting benefit. The President’s new space policy encourages pessimism. By effectively killing NASA’s manned spaceflight program, it puts aerospace researchers in much the same position that particle physicists found themselves in 2 decades ago.

They no longer have an intellectual or economic home in the US. And, unlike the physicists, they have nowhere else to go. There is no space-going CERN to keep them productively employed.

American students who might have entered the field will have to choose other careers. Whatever consumer innovations might have been spun off from future manned space missions will not add to US GDP. Civilian spaceflight may one day take up the slack, as Obama hopes, but that is far from guaranteed.

War against science

Starvation is not the only problem American research and development has faced. Politics is another. Consider the longstanding battle against atomic energy. No new nuclear reactors have been built in the US since 1970, thanks to a widespread and politically powerful, if possibly irrational, fear of radiation.

New doctorates in nuclear physics and nuclear engineering have all but vanished. As a result, now that nuclear energy is regaining interest as a relatively benign form of power, the US has no infrastructure in nuclear engineering and design.

Toshiba, which owns the Westinghouse nuclear business, has been forced to bring back retirees for the senior R&D positions it needs to fill. Yet, in recent years, basic science has faced much worse political problems than nuclear power ever did.

For example, President George W Bush’s decision in 2004 to limit federal funding of stem cell studies may have sounded reasonable, yet it all but banned stem cell research in the US. The consequences were predictable. When one country abandons a field of research, that field does not dry up—it simply moves to other lands with fewer restrictions.

Thus, several dozen near-Nobel-caliber biologists and research physicians moved from the US to Europe to continue their work, along with more than 1000 less celebrated researchers. At the same time, countries such as Ireland, South Korea and Singapore developed their own stem-cell programs and became world leaders in the field.

China and India quickly followed. According to one estimate, the market for stem cell therapies will be somewhere between $8.5 and $10.0 billion by 2016. The US, the world’s leader in so many other medical technologies, is expected to receive only about 1/8 of that total—the rest will go to countries like China and India, where there are fewer obstacles to research and the clinical application of therapies that may be controversial in the US.

Other problems from the last decade include the systematic suppression of research in fields such as climate change, animal populations and systems biology. Executive Order 13422, signed by President Bush in Jan 2007, even gave the Office of Management & Budget authority to review proposals by regulatory agencies to make sure they did not conflict with administration policy, whether or not they were supported by credible scientific findings.

All this systematically undermined American science. Worse, it did so at a time when many of the countries that compete with North America in the global marketplace were fattening their budgets for research and development. China raised its R&D spending from $60 billion in 2001 to an estimated $136 billion in 2006.

And many observers believe that much more funding may be hidden in military budgets. Beijing says it will continue boosting its R&D budget, from 1.23% of GDP in 2004 to 2.5% in 2020. Research outlays in Japan have risen almost continuously. In 2007, they accounted for nearly 3% of the country’s GDP. In Russia, the picture is more complex.

R&D spending there fell to just 0.7% of GDP in 1997, which supplied some of the darkest days in the country’s post-1989 economic downturn. However, more recently funding for R&D has recovered to about 1.5% of GDP, not counting clandestine military research. The Russian government, which pays for about 60% of research in the country, directs about 44% of the total to defense research.

No wonder, then, that foreign students are less interested in building their careers in the US. In the past, more than 90% of Chinese nationals who earned PhDs at American schools planned to remain in the US for at least 5 years. So did 85% of Indian students. Today, little more than half of foreign science students say they want to stay in America for a few years.

Only 6% of Indians and 10% of Chinese want to remain permanently. AnnaLee Saxenian, dean and professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Information, blames the economy. “Foreign students have a sense that the US is closing down as a land of opportunity,” she says.

A majority, she adds, believe that innovation over the next 25 years will occur faster in China and India than in the US. There is an obvious implication here. Whatever discoveries these students will make, whatever patents they file, whatever companies they eventually found would once have been likely to improve the technical prowess and economic prosperity of the US. In the future, they will benefit China and India.

It’s not too late

The US can still head off its scientific decline and re­build its technological edge. And it can still benefit from the prosperity and international standing that mastery of science and technology should bring—if it acts fast.


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