Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 25  |  Friday, May 10, 2002  |  Number 8
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Other Views
Questions from many sides on the direction of U.S. R&D spending

by Mike Perricone

G. Wayne Clough

WASHINGTON, D.C.-When G. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, hosted a visit by President Bush on March 27, he received strong advice on how to comport himself in the President's presence.

"Everybody urged me to get as close to him as I could, so that I would appear in the pictures that were taken," Clough told the AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy. "Sure enough, the next day, there we were in color on the front page of the newspapers. But apparently I hadn't gotten quite close enough, because only half of me appeared in the picture."

Clough, who was named to President Bush's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (chaired by OSTP Director John Marburger) in December 2001, compared the photo-op strategy to what he saw as a disappointing policy trend in the aftermath of last September's terrorist attacks.

"Unfortunately, I feel as if a lot of people are treating this issue the same way," Clough said. "They're trying to get as close to it as they can, to make sure they'll get into the picture."

Clough emphasized that he wasn't opposing national security spending as a priority, but was seeking a context for other long-term priorities.

"We will be spending money on security whether we like it or not," Clough said. "The challenge is how to make that a positive for our economy."

Illustrating that challenge, and speaking for the academic sector, he pointed to some disturbing images in the big picture of U.S. research and development:

  • Federal research and development spending fell from 1.6% of Gross Domestic Product in 1987 to just 0.6 % in 1999;
  • Sweden, Japan and South Korea spend proportionally more than the U.S. on research and development as a percentage of GDP;
  • South Korea is the world's fastest-growing research and development spender, followed by Singapore, Ireland, Australia, Sweden, Italy, Canada, and the U.S.;
  • The U.S. ranks just 10th in world in the percentage of 24-year-olds with degrees in science and engineering;
  • Demonstrating what Clough called "the connection between research funding and warm bodies," graduate enrollments are down in the fields where federal research funding has been cut, and they are up in the life sciences where research funding has increased.

Clough pointed to the Internet as the result of research money spent in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. He cited the growth of nanotechnology from 1959, when Richard Feynman coined the term at a meeting of the American Physical Society, to its contemporary presence in products ranging from stain-resistant khaki pants to self-cleaning windows, women's cosmetics, and running boards for vans.

"By the same token," he countered, "I doubt that General Motors, Eddie Bauer, or Revlon Cosmetics in their wildest imaginations ever thought of investing in the frontier physics research that generated the nanotechnology from which they are now profiting.”

Other speakers noted points for concern in directions of R&D spending:

Scott Lilly, Minority Staff Director, House Committee on Appropriations:

  • Doubling the NIH budget by 2003 offered no guarantees afterward, and "boom and bust funding forces out researchers;"
  • Adding up research cuts in the FY03 budget yielded a sum $30 million below the current FY02 level;
  • The recent tax-cut bill will cost $100 billion in revenues lost in the short run, and is projected to cost $250 billion in revenues lost over the next decade.

Ben Wu, Deputy Under Secretary for Technology, U.S. Dept. of Commerce:

  • In 1950, the U.S. (both federal and private spending) accounted for 70% of the world's R&D; today, it's about 1/3;
  • In 1950, federal R&D accounted for about 47% of the world's R&D; today, it's about 10%;
  • In the 1950s and 60s, the ratio of federal to private research spending was 2/1; today, the ratio of private to federal spending is 2/1;
  • The reversing trend opens the question of how R&D policy makes its way to the marketplace.

Kei Koizumi, Director, R&D Budged and Policy Program, AAAS:

  • The increase in federal discretionary spending in FY03 is $49 billion, with $44.5 billion going to the Department of Defense;
  • If NIH and DOD are removed from consideration, all other R&D spending is "flat-flat,"
  • Non-defense R&D has not regained the levels reached in the Carter Administration, in constant FY02 dollars;
  • Sciences other than life sciences depend on agencies whose budgets haven't grown in the last 10 years.

Conceding wryly that the notion of "balance" in research spending "has become an interesting word lately," Clough maintained that balance is an important principle.

"The problem with advancing some disciplines at the expense of others is that both the most important problems and the hot-beds of discovery and innovation are in the gaps between the traditional disciplines," Clough said. "…Advances in biomedical research are grounded in fundamental research not just in biology, but also in chemistry and physics, and in chemical and mechanical engineering, which provide insight into the operation of living systems. Yet these disciplines are seeing a declining level of federal support."

On the web:
27th Annual AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy www.aaas.org/spp/dspp/rd/colloqu.htm

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