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Editorial: U.S. R&D Spending

Investing in the future

The South Korean government said last week that it plans to spend $8.3 billion on research and development next year to bolster next-generation growth industries and eco-friendly technologies.

Whoop-de-doo! - a measly $8.3 billion compared with the $99 billion the U.S. government plans to spend on R&D in 2009. But just as significant is that South Korea's total equates to an 11 percent increase in R&D funding, while the larger U.S. figure represents a 0.34 percent decline, according to an analysis for Battelle and R&D magazine.

That's the wrong direction for this country, if it is going to maintain its competitive edge in the world.

Overall research and development expenditures by U.S. government, industry and academic sources is expected to reach $383 billion in 2009, which is nearly 2 percent higher than the $377 billion spent this year. But when you factor in inflation, the increase becomes a decrease of about 1.6 percent.

Much of the U.S. decline can be attributed to the worldwide recession, which has made not just governments but ordinary folks cut back on spending. But research leading to industrial, medical or other technological innovations can save money, if not produce more of it.

America considers bailouts of the financial and automotive sectors as investments; it should think of money spent on R&D in the same way.

Sure, there was a time in this country when inventors like Bell and Edison depended only on their own blood, sweat and tears. But successful research since the mid-20th century has largely depended on benefactors with deep pockets - chief among them the U.S. government.

Increasingly, too, private sponsors of R&D have preferred applied research aimed at outcomes that lead to a commercially viable product. Funds aren't as abundant for basic research, where scientists have greater freedom to brainstorm.

Computer designer Bill Buxton noted in a recent Business Week Online column that universities also have shifted to "commercially relevant" science spurred by the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which allows them to patent and license the results of federally funded research.

The consequences, though, are deals such as the one between Virginia Commonwealth University and Philip Morris, in which the school was contractually prohibited from releasing any research results without the company's permission.

Buxton urged universities and companies to fund their own research. "The real question," he said, "is not, 'Can I afford to invest in research?' It is, 'How can I afford not to?' "

That's the question facing the entire nation, not just academia.

Budgets for R&D should be increased, even in economically uncertain times. U.S. expenditures on R&D will still dwarf those of most other countries in 2009, but Asia as a region spends almost the same amount. South Korea, China and other Asian nations understand the lesson this nation learned decades ago from investing in science.

We shouldn't have to be taught that lesson again.