U.S. Competitiveness at Risk Without More R&D Investment



The U.S. could lose its international competitive edge in innovation without more research funding and other initiatives to foster talent and education, science agency leaders said at a Senate hearing Jan. 30. 

“We’re looking over our shoulder and seeing China and other countries coming up faster and faster, when before they used to be way behind,” France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, told lawmakers at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing. 

China is the second largest investor after the U.S. in global research and development investment, according to a Jan. 18 study from the National Science Foundation and the National Science Board. But China’s R&D investment is growing four times the U.S. average annual pace, it said. 

The report amplified lawmakers’ growing concerns that China and Russia could overtake the U.S. in artificial intelligence and cyber capabilities and threaten national security.  

“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,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the committee, said at the hearing. 

The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to federal science agencies are part of the problem facing U.S. innovation development, Nelson said. The administration’s 2018 budget called for an 11 percent and 23 percent cut to the funding of the NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), respectively. 

The commerce committee had recommended four percent increases to both agencies, Nelson said.

The NSF allocates grants for science and technology research. NIST conducts research and supports initiatives to help U.S. businesses implement new technologies and bring new discoveries to market. NSF funded research that helped develop autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, Alphabet Inc.'s Google and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, Córdova said.

Doubling or quadrupling U.S. funding in basic research would be “tremendous horsepower for the nation,” Córdova said in response to a question from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) about the possibility of increasing the U.S.’s investment in R&D from less than one percent of its gross domestic product now to two percent. 

Competing with China will require more than boosting research funding, panelists said. The U.S. also needs to invest in education and tap into talent pools of women and minorities for science work, Córdova said. 

Investment in standards and protocols to help to translate those discoveries into new applications will also be needed, Walter Copan, director of NIST, said. 

“Countries like China have chosen to focus very heavily not just in science but in measurements and in standards work,” he told Bloomberg Law. “It’s a very critical threat to the nation now as we look at the future of U.S. competitiveness.”