Obama enlists Microsoft, Google execs to help in push to boost R&D spending

Schmidt and Mundie named to science and tech advisory council; Obama calls for increasing research spending in the U.S. to 3% of GDP

As US President Barack Obama moves to hike spending on research and development in the U.S., two of the people who will help him shape the government's science and technology policies are top executives from Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc.

Obama Monday appointed Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. PCAST is the president's top scientific advisory body, and its 20 members include executives and academics with a wide range of business and scientific expertise.

In a speech at the National Academy of Sciences, Obama outlined a plan to increase overall R&D spending to more than 3% of the U.S. gross domestic product. Obama a made sweeping case for boosting research investments, citing everything from the role of science in fighting the swine flu outbreak to the ability of the U.S. to compete globally.

"We will not just meet but we will exceed the [spending] level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science," Obama said.

As a whole, the U.S. spent $368 billion, or about 2.66% of GDP, on R&D in 2007. Private-sector investments account for about 1.95 of those percentage points, which means that the government will need to get help from the corporate world in order to increase R&D spending to the level desired by Obama, said Al Teich, director of science and technology policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Obama himself made the same point in today's speech. And one thing he wants to do to help encourage the private sector to spend more on research is to make the R&D tax credit permanent. The president has included $75 billion to fund the tax credit in his proposed budget for the next federal fiscal year.

Robert Boege, executive director at the the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America, said the research community is elated with Obama's plan to boost R&D spending. "Would we be in this economic predicament that we think we are in now," he asked, "if we had made those adequate investments [in research] over the last generation? I don't have an answer, but I suspect it would be a much different world."

Boege said the U.S. is losing market share in a wide variety of strategic industries and professions because the country hasn't made the necessary R&D investments. "We are asleep at the switch policy-wise," he added.

The government has already hiked research funding as part of the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus bill. The measure, which Obama signed into law in February, includes $21.5 billion for R&D.

The administration also wants to double, over a 10-year period, the budgets of three major scientific agencies within the government: the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Teich, though, said the most important thing about Obama's speech today wasn't the increased spending goal he set, but his general emphasis on the role of science. "What we've got now is a president who has put science and technology at the center of his agenda for the nation," Teich said.

Obama also promised unbiased decision-making on science. "I want to be sure that facts are driving scientific decisions - and not the other way around," Obama said in a criticism of the Bush administration, which frequently was at odds with scientists who accused it of infusing ideology into the scientific process.

In addition to Schmidt and Mundie, some of the other people who were appointed today to serve on PCAST include William Press, a professor of computer sciences at the University of Texas and a former deputy laboratory director for science and technology at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Maxine Savitz, retired general manager of technology partnerships at Honeywell Inc.

The advisory council will be co-chaired by three members: John Holdren, Obama's top science policy advisor and a former professor of environmental policy at Harvard University; Eric Lander, one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project; and Harold Varmus, former head of the National Institutes of Health and now president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Varmus also was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1989.

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