Let’s looks at the facts about research and development (R&D). As a percentage of GDP, the U.S. ranks eighth, behind countries like Japan, South Korea, and even Iceland. In one of the most important areas—energy—in 2010 the Department of Energy invested just $2.27 billion on applied R&D, or just slightly more than 1/100th of one percent of GDP. As a point of comparison, that’s nearly $1 billion less than the amount ($3.1 billion) we’ll spend in 2011 providing a tax benefit for employee parking.

R&D is not the only area where we are falling behind. Over the past two decades there has been an 18 percent decline in the number of students graduating with bachelor degrees in engineering, math, physics and geosciences in the United States. 

In 1986, the United States had 52 percent of the global doctorates in science and engineering. By 2003, that number dropped to a staggering 22 percent. The U.S. ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering. It was 3rd just three decades ago.

To give a real-time example of why this matters, in the fourth quarter of 2010, 20 percent of our trade deficit was created by advanced technology, making it the largest deficit contributor. In that year, the advanced technology trade deficit worsened by $82 billion.

While our investment in our future falls, other nations have learned from the American way, and drastically increased their R&D.

China is investing in science, engineering, manufacturing, energy and transportation. China plans to spend $1.5 trillion in seven strategic sectors, including alternative energy, alternative fuel cars, and high-end equipment manufacturing (including high-speed rail and aviation). It now dominates the United States in the manufacture of clean energy technologies. China has leaped over its global competitors, both in the United States and in Europe, in the making of wind turbines and solar panels. 

China invested $34.6 billion in clean energy in 2009; in the U.S. it was just $18.6 billion. Why do we wonder why China’s economy is growing so fast?

Fortunately, this isn’t how the story has to end. America can control its own destiny. But to do so, we must increase our investment – both public and private – in R&D.

America has done this before. It put a man on the moon within a decade of the challenge to do so; it built the atomic bomb to help win the Second World War; and it built a waterway to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

This new investment should be centered on our transportation networks and next-generation energy technology.

Today, there are scientists working on fusion power in many nations. Fusion power would be a safe, affordable, clean, and sustainable energy.

Many scientists believe that an investment of $35 billion over 10 years would build two pilot plants to move forward with commercialization of fusion power over the next 30 years.

Other nations – China and South Korea – are eager to win the race for commercialization of fusion. If we don’t set a national priority ourselves, we are in danger of loosing this race, too. 

If we recommit ourselves to science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing, we will lay the foundations to future growth and a secure American future. The alternative is not one that is pleasant to contemplate.
Norm Augustine is a board member of the American Security Project. He was chairman of the Council of the National Academy of Engineering, president and chairman of the Association of the United States Army, chairman of the Aerospace Industries Association, and chairman of the Defense Science Board.