Upbeat U.S. Research Trends Buck Trend

The headline on the press release about a new report warns of "R&D trends posing a threat" to the U.S. economy. Scary words, to be sure, especially coming from the presidentially appointed National Science Board, the policy-setting body for the $7 billion a year National Science Foundation (NSF).

But the data upon which the board bases its analysis—NSF's biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report—paint a much brighter picture of the U.S. scientific enterprise than that headline suggests. In fact, the actual contents of the board's 20-page white paper released today reveal some very positive developments affecting U.S. research spending, innovation, and the scientific workforce.

The most startling bit of information is that the nation's investment in research, as a share of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), reached a record high of 2.9% in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available). That ratio is a favorite metric for those charting a nation's commitment to investing in innovation, since the intensity of investment is supposed to be a good indicator of how much the increased spending will actually boost a country's overall economy.

The 2009 number is tantalizingly close to the goal of 3.0% that President Barack Obama enunciated in 2009 at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in a speech also known for his pledge that "restoring science to its rightful place" would be a priority for his administration. It also means that the U.S. investment percentage has now topped the halcyon days of the Apollo program, when the race to the moon produced a spike in both public and private spending.

Two other trends documented in the board's new report should be equally heartening to science policy mavens. The first is that total R&D expenditures have climbed steadily since 1990, up 167%. The second is that the country's scientific and engineering workforce grew by 1.4% annually in the last decade, some seven times faster than the annual growth of the overall labor market.

To be sure, the 2008 global recession did have a chilling effect on U.S. research activity. The board's report points out that businesses cut their research budgets by 5% between 2008 and 2009, for a drop of $12 billion. At the same time, the report notes, the massive 2-year federal stimulus package "temporarily" made up the difference by providing billions more in research dollars.

One silver lining of the recession was industry's reduced share of overall U.S. R&D investment, from 69% in 2000 to 62% in 2009. For years university presidents have lamented the increasingly larger corporate slice of the overall research pie, pointing out that very little of the money goes to academic research. In contrast, the federal government ponies up for the majority of basic research, so bigger federal research budgets lead directly to more spending on their campuses.

The report also expresses concern about state support for their flagship public research universities. It says that a decline in funding over the decade could jeopardize their ability to meet the twin missions of training the next generation of scientists and conducting top-quality research that will bolster regional economic development. The board plans to address that issue in a second white paper, due out later this year.