As the U.S. government continues to spend less and less money on scientific research and development, the country risks losing its place as the top innovator in the world, according to experts and congressmen who spoke at a Jan. 30, 2018, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing.
“From satellite communications to cutting-edge fields like gene editing, the advancement of science has depended on a healthy investment in research by the federal government. But recently, we’ve been losing ground to overseas competitors,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
“China is now the second largest investor in R&D — a key driver of global competitiveness. And China’s R&D investment continues to grow at a much higher pace than any other nation. At this rate, China may soon eclipse the U.S., and we will lose the competitive advantage that has made us the most powerful economy in the world.”
According to, Dr. France Cordova, director of the National Science Foundation, all eight U.S. Nobelists at the Dec. 2017 Nobel Prize awards in Stockholm, Sweden, were in some part funded in their research by the NSF, making government investment “vital” to U.S. competitiveness in scientific innovation.
“The U.S. basically contributes about 0.7 percent of our GDP to research and development,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., adding that advocates have argued that it would be in the nation’s best interest to grow that number to two percent of the GDP.
“It would be transformational to grow the basic research,” said Cordova, characterizing that investment as providing “tremendous horsepower” for the nation.
Cordova explained that such investments would also do more good by focusing on the research side of the equation, rather than development, which is already well supported by industry.
“Where I think the emphasis is, or where it should be from our point of view, is on really growing the investment in basic research, because that is at the root of technology and tech transfer,” said Cordova. “I think development has a lot of investment in it, especially by the business community, they’re the dominant players.”
However, said Dr. Walter Copan, under secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and director of National Institute of Standards and Technology, though a restricted budgeting process can present difficulties for scientific investment, it also offers opportunity to streamline and increase efficiencies in the grant process.
“Investment in science and technology is critical for the nation’s future, for our competitiveness. I believe we can be prudent for how we invest to gain maximum benefit for the U.S. economy and to assure our leadership,” said Copan.
Democrats on the committee, however, were critical of that leadership’s lack of appointments for science positions and their treatment of the federal science community.
“Part of the problem is that the president has yet to name a science advisor. That means that when decisions like the budget or leaving the Paris climate accords are under consideration, there is no science voice for in the room. Just as troubling are the many reports of interference in science by this administration,” said Nelson.
“Some scientists have been told that the cannot talk about research, their research, and some have been moved out of science jobs.”
Specifically, the president has yet to name a director of the Office of Science Technology Policy.
“It is my understanding that the committee had hoped to have someone from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, OSTP, join us as a witness today. However, because there still has been no one appointed to head the office, OSTP is not able to join us,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.
According to Cordova, the U.S. will have to focus on both research and encouraging people to train for and work in scientific communities.
“We’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to invest and broaden the participation of more of our own youth and women to be a part of STEM, and we’re going to have to make up our investments in basic research,” said Cordova.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.