US must fund or surrender lead in science, task force says

Increased federal investments in scientific research and human capital are needed if the United States is to maintain its position as world leader in science, according to a new report by the Task Force on American Innovation, a non-partisan alliance of leading American companies and business associations, research universities and scientific associations.

In the report released on 14 May, the alliance warns that while the US continues to be the world’s leader in science research funding, several global competitors are on course to catch and eventually pass the US.

The report, Benchmarks 2019: Second Place America? Increasing challenges to US scientific leadership, documents that the US share of global R&D is diminishing, while China is on track to surpass the US spending on R&D, according to OECD estimates.

South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom and China have all created national strategies to increase government investment in science and research. To help sustain US leadership, the report calls for increased federal investments in scientific research and human capital.

“America has always been the leader when it comes to funding innovation,” said Brian Mosley of the Computing Research Association, who co-chaired the report committee. “But this report shows that this lead may not last much longer.”

The report says the US has a rich history of global leadership in science and technology. Much of this success is due to the unique partnership between the federal government, universities and private industry.

This innovation ecosystem has allowed for the generation of new knowledge and foundational ideas, helping make the US the world leader in many scientific and technological fields. It has also helped to attract the best and brightest students and scholars from around the world to come to the US to study, work and contribute to advancing US scientific research and our economy.

But America’s global leadership in science, technology and innovation is now under threat, as China and other countries are rapidly increasing investments in research and growing their STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce.

Tobin Smith of the Association of American Universities, who also co-chaired the report, said: “This is a wake-up call for policy-makers in Washington. Maintaining a global lead in science is critical to American national security and economic interests. But this report clearly documents that the rest of the world is catching up very quickly.”

To raise awareness about the report, the Task Force on American Innovation on 14 May hosted a briefing for Congressional staffers that included Eric Fanning, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association and former US secretary of the Army; John Neuffer, president and CEO of the Semiconductor Industry Association; Michael McQuade, vice president for research at Carnegie Mellon University; and Nadya Bliss, director of the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University.

This report says maintaining the US’s global leadership status is critical to security as well as to future economic growth and prosperity.

Benchmarks against other nations

It benchmarks the US against other nations in R&D investment, knowledge production, education, workforce and high-tech sectors of the economy.

In particular it highlights the strides being made by South Korea, Germany, the UK and China.

It says that South Korea, following the establishment of multiple government research institutes and the Ministry of Science and Technology in the 1960s and the introduction of R&D tax credits in the 1970s, has become an “international R&D powerhouse”.

Last summer the South Korean government reached an agreement to double funding for basic science by 2022.

Germany last year pledged to increase the country’s research intensity from 2.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) to 3.5%, which would rank third in the world. Some German officials have also considered establishing an R&D tax credit for the first time.

The UK, after years of scientific achievement but surprisingly low investment in R&D, has changed tack in its latest industrial strategy, released in late 2017, to aim to increase total investment from 1.7% of GDP to 2.4% by 2027, which would “put the UK on par with other major economies and begin to approach current US research intensity”.

China’s most recent five-year plan for science and technology, issued in 2016 and extending through 2020, pledges continued spending growth and establishes a research intensity target of 2.5% of GDP by 2020.

This target came on the heels of China’s much-noted ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy, which seeks to establish Chinese dominance in high-tech manufacturing areas such as robotics, aerospace and energy-saving vehicles, the report says.

The report notes that emerging economies, particularly China, are playing a greater role in scientific discovery and innovation, and challenging US leadership in critical research fields.

China has overtaken the US in total research publication output as of 2016 and is now the dominant research producer in key areas, including engineering, physics, chemistry, geosciences and mathematics.

Eric Fanning, interviewed on POTUS radio, said: “A bellwether is what percentage of those publications are being cited by other countries and we are falling behind on that as well – which is an indicator that other countries are spending more and doing more and coming up with more ideas, either catching up with us or, in the case of China, starting to overlap us.

“And it is not just China, even Saudi Arabia has more publications cited in the top 1% than we do.”

The report also says other countries are investing heavily in their higher education systems, in turn increasing their numbers of science and technology courses.

Trailing in number of degrees awarded

The US continues to trail the top eight countries in the European Union as measured by the total number of bachelor degrees in science and engineering awarded since 2000; and the US has been eclipsed by China, whose output of science and engineering degrees increased by more than 360% during this time.

China now awards nearly as many science and engineering doctorates as the US. In the 15-year period between 2000 and 2014, China increased its doctoral degree output in science and engineering by more than 53%.

The US appears to be lagging in the training of its workforce in STEM fields.

Since 2010 China has surpassed the number of researchers in the US. In 2015 its estimated total number of researchers was 1.6 million compared to 1.3 million in the US, the report notes.

The US still spends more funds per researcher, but between 2009 and 2015 China reported a near 43% increase in gross domestic spending on R&D per researcher (in constant prices and purchasing power parity).

“Across many sectors of the economy, signs of trouble for the US are emerging in areas important to national security, economic competitiveness, technological leadership and industrial capacity,” the report says.

“These warning signs show the ripple effects of lapses in support for research and education.”

Data on aerospace, artificial intelligence, biomedical, nanotechnology and telecommunications show the US is not investing enough in the physical sciences and engineering, and is in danger of losing its competitive edge, with potential economic and national security implications, the report says.

Lead surrendered in supercomputing

It cites the example of supercomputing, where the US has surrendered its once commanding lead. On the top 500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers, the US controlled nearly half of the world’s top machines in 2005 but today controls less than a quarter, and has been surpassed by China.

Fanning, speaking to POTUS radio said: “The study says we are taking our leadership and advantage in scientific research and innovation for granted; we are falling behind other countries, particularly China.”

He said this comes down to the level of investment in research, especially basic research, as there is a direct correlation between that and the health of an economy and the outputs of a country and this early stage investment takes decades to build up and produce results.

“We are seeing the dividends in innovation coming out of investment from the three decades after World War Two right now. Losing this advantage is something that could cost us for years to come.”

When asked what the US could learn from its competitors, he said in many ways it is the opposite, as they have learned from the US.

“We had decades of supremacy in this area because we took it seriously. We had important government-industry-academic partnerships and we invested and kept the pressure on this for decades – and you can see the results of American leadership economically and with innovation,” he said.

“But other countries have been watching that. China in particular has learned from it.”

He also took a swipe at the chaotic political environment in Washington under the Trump presidency. “The partnership [between government, industry and academia] is fraying a little bit because the investment from the government side is not keeping up and from the disruptive political environment in Washington right now. The Chinese don’t periodically shut down their government.”