US innovation: On the skids

Technologists look to a new White House to reverse decade-long slide in R&D

The AAAS said the federal investment in basic and applied research would fall in real terms for the fifth year in a row under the fiscal year 2009 budget proposal. Meanwhile, it said, other countries, including China and Korea, are boosting government research by 10 percent or more annually.

The AAAS also presented data that shows that despite a big surge in health research funding for the National Institutes of Health between 1998 and 2003, total federal R&D spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has been in decline since 1976.

"Federal research investments are shrinking as a share of the US economy just as other nations are increasing their investments," the AAAS observes.

The Technology Policy and Assessment Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology recently completed a study that compares the technological progress of 33 countries between 1993 and 2007. It concluded that China has progressed more -- and more rapidly than any of the other countries -- while the US and Japan have slowly declined.

The Georgia Tech study computes the relative "technological standing" for the countries based on myriad social, economic and technological indicators, some statistical and some based on expert opinion. Combining the indicators provides a numeric measure showing that China has moved from a position far behind the U.S. to a point roughly even with it.

"The pattern is inexorable," says Alan Porter, one of the authors of the study. "China is coming up strongly, and it's in high-tech areas, not just cheap consumer goods."

China's rise is aided by an authoritarian government, low wages and a good manufacturing base, he says, but that isn't all. "You see tremendous effort in research in China," Porter says. "The US and China are neck and neck in basic science."

Gone astray

"We have kind of lost our way in some respects," says Vinton Cerf, chief Internet evangelist at Google and another Internet pioneer. "We have a significant diminution of industrial long-term research in IT, and we have seen one of the major federal sources of IT research -- DARPA -- essentially withdraw from a lot of that. Historically, DARPA would accept that it might take five to 10 years for an idea to yield anything."

Cerf says we should get used to the idea that countries like China will catch up with us in technology, simply because they have far more people. In fact, he says he doesn't like the word competitiveness because it suggests an adversarial relationship. He says he'd prefer that scientists and engineers work across borders to collaborate openly and publish their results.

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