Cerf in WSJ: America Gasps for Breath in the R&D Marathon

Turing Award winner Vint Cerf and ITAA head Harris Miller have a fantastic op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal raising concerns about US competitiveness in light of a declining federal R&D budget. The article is behind the WSJ pay wall, but can be viewed online for the next seven days here. Some snippets:

America will soon find its grip on the levers of international commerce slipping as we turn our backs on a proud tradition of technology innovation. The stewards of our national destiny are busily tightening the tap on the federal R&D budget, the most important source of funding for programs that seek to answer fundamental questions of science and technology.

In the 1960s and ’70s, a collection of academics and private-sector technologists, including a co-author of this piece, used findings funded by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (now DARPA), to participate in implementation of the first wide-area packet switched network (the ARPANET) and the subsequent integrated collection of packet-switched networks (the Internet).
Now DARPA officials have revealed a shift in focus away from its history of open-ended long-range research, which typically has been performed in universities and nonprofit institutions. According to recent news reports, DARPA funding for university researchers in computer science has fallen from $214 million to $123 million from 2001 to 2004. Moreover, the focus of DARPA R&D is more near-term and more immediately defense-oriented than before. While this is defensible in some ways, the largest impacts of long-term research funded in the past by DARPA have been in areas that have wider or dual application to defense and the civilian sector.
The U.S. is already lagging behind in R&D funding. Our total national spending on R&D is 2.7% of our GDP, and now ranks sixth in the world, in relative terms, behind Israel (4.4%), Sweden (3.8%), Finland (3.4%), Japan (3.0%) and Iceland (2.9%). The federal government’s share of total national R&D spending has fallen from 66% in 1964 to 25%.
Some of the outright cuts in the president’s proposed R&D budget include the following:

  • The Department of Energy’s Office of Science would see its R&D funding fall 4.5% to $3.2 billion.

  • The Department of Agriculture would see its R&D funding decline 14.6% to $2.1 billion.
  • Funding for all three multi-agency R&D initiatives would decline in FY 2006, a category that includes programs such as the National Nanotechnology Initiative and the Networking and Information Technology R&D initiative.
    The proposed cuts come at a time when other nations have fixed their sights firmly on overtaking our technological lead, especially in information technology. For those of us in industry and academia, this shift in policy represents a major detour in the marathon race for global economic leadership.

  • The piece goes on to quote a number of indicators — many of the same ones cited in the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation’s influential Benchmarks of our Innovation Future report — that show that while the U.S. remains in the leadership position in innovation and R&D investments, all of the trendlines are slanting the wrong way.

    The facile solution is to turn to private industry and academia to make up the difference. But R&D funding from private industry is currently growing above inflation. It is susceptible to general economic cycles, and by its nature it is focused on the here and now. Meanwhile, many academic institutions are battling lagging enrollment and turning to unconventional fund-raising means merely to stay afloat. The difficulty in obtaining visas for foreign scientists has also restricted an important source of talent in the research community.
    In a very real sense, today’s R&D agenda determines where America will find itself in the future. The benefits of vigorous, federally funded academic R&D programs reaped by American society at large have been enormous. Our domestic and global economies thrive on the results of such work. Private sector programs alone cannot produce comparable results, in part owing to an ethical obligation to deliver bottom-line business results for their stockholders. The U.S. government needs a long-term strategy for continued economic growth. A strong and thriving academic R&D program is critical to that strategy. To choose otherwise is a recipe leading to irrelevance and decline.

    I’m thrilled to see this piece in the WSJ today….
    I’ll have a bit more comment on this later when I have a few minutes, but I wanted to get the pointer to the article up asap. Read the whole thing, while it’s still available!
    Update: The article is finding it’s way around Congress. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) circulated the piece in a “Dear Colleague” letter along with this text:

    Once again, high technology leaders are warning that declining federal investments in research and development are allowing the rest of the world to catch up. This isn’t a problem that can be blamed on Europe or developing economies in Asia. It’s a problem that we’re creating. If we’re to maintain our economic leadership for future generations, we need to increase the federal commitment to R&D instead of cutting it.

    Cerf in WSJ: America Gasps for Breath in the R&D Marathon