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Chinese innovation is surging — we must fund science to compete

Chinese innovation is surging — we must fund science to compete
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When America seeks to address a crisis or achieve preeminence, it looks to science. This is true whether the issue is the economy, climate change, national security or even a pandemic.

And yet, today, Americans spend more on potato chips than on energy research. For President Biden and the new Congress, the time is now for new thinking about how we prioritize and fund science, as well as public primary and secondary education.

In 2019 we spent one tenth of one percent of the GDP on biomedical basic research but nearly 18 percent of the GDP on health care. And what of overall competitiveness? Mainland China is increasing research and development investment by double digit percentages each year while U.S. investment, as a percentage of GDP, has remained stagnant for nearly half a century. China is close to passing the United States in total R&D investment based on purchasing power parity. China’s entire GDP is projected to pass that of the United States, using currency exchange rates, by around the end of the decade. If PPP conversion is applied to GDP, China passed the United States several years ago.

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The United States cannot hope to compete with China based on workforce size; rather, America must compete by being first to create new knowledge and inventions and put them to good use. Our public educational system is currently ill-equipped to meet this goal. American 15-year-olds rank 25th among 31 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations and regions in combined reading, math and science scores, state governments on average cut investment in their public universities by more than 20 percent per student for full time students and there have not been enough young Americans choosing careers in science and engineering for decades. 

Not surprisingly, America’s scientific community is heavily dependent on the talents and ambitions of young men and women born in other parts of the world. Fully 28 percent of America’s science and engineering faculty and half of its postdoctoral workers were born abroad, as were 24 percent of the nation’s overall science and technology workforce. 

But even with this influx of talent, Bloomberg’s Innovation Index has dropped the U.S. to eighth place among nations, having fallen from first place in a decade. The index now ranks America 10th in R&D intensity (R&D as a fraction of GDP).  

Concern over these trends led the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, working with Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, to call for an examination of what is needed to regain the strong competitive position America had established through past robust investments in R&D. The resulting report, “Perils of Complacency: America at a Tipping Point in Science and Engineering,” was recently released. The title effectively tells it all. America’s rise to preeminence, from World War II to the end of the Cold War, can be traced to the nation’s commitment to science. To our peril, that commitment has faded.

Among the report’s many recommendations of ways to get the country back on a more progressive path of learning, scientific discovery, innovation and global competitiveness is a call for increased federal investment in research. The report presents a strong rationale for at least 50 percent real growth in federal basic research funding in all fields, from the current level of approximately 0.2 percent of GDP, with a similar increase in federal applied research, given the growing need for rapid translation of ideas and inventions from discovery to application. 

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This recommendation may seem modest, especially in light of the critical role science is playing in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. In the grand scale of the nation’s economy that may be true; compelling arguments can be made for even larger increases.

Former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao observed, “The history of modernization is in essence a history of scientific and technological progress. Scientific discovery and technological inventions have brought about new civilizations, modern industries and the rise and fall of nations… I firmly believe that science is the ultimate revolution.”

It is popular in the United States to blame China for our declining competitive position, including its standing in science, technology and innovation. There is much to criticize about the Chinese government’s behavior inside China and around the globe. But is it China that runs our public primary and secondary schools? Does China decide how many American students elect to study science or engineering? Does China decide how much we should invest in research?

The answer, of course, is no. We do, and it will be incumbent upon Biden and Congress to look at the facts and chart a new course.

Norman Augustine is a retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin. Neal Lane is a senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute