When countries are scaled according to their annual investment in research and development, the world looks odd. But in a map created by a consortium of cartographers and geographers, distortions have meaning: Nations with paltry R&D budgets shrivel, while big spenders like the United States bloat like balloons.
Clearly, the United States still dominates. We spent $343 billion on R&D in 2006, roughly a third of all such investment worldwide. More than half of the world’s most influential scientific research is conducted in the United States. But the raw numbers hide some disturbing trends. Federal funds for R&D in almost every field have been declining for 30 years as a percentage of the gross domestic product, and most of these dollars are going to the development side. That imbalance leaves basic research in physics, math, and engineering—the raw material of technological change—foundering. Basic research in the 1920s laid the foundation for the microelectronics industry of the 1950s; physicists’ discoveries in the 1950s led to the nanotechnology of the 1990s. Today’s lack of innovation could lead to tomorrow’s stagnant economy.
Education is also lagging in the United States. Twice as many people earned physics bachelor’s degrees in 1956 as in 2004. “When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in a 2005 speech.
Meanwhile, other countries are surging ahead. Since 1998, Western Europe has published more scientific articles each year than the United States. Many Asian nations are betting their economic futures on science and technology. In just 10 years, the number of science and engineering undergraduates in China doubled, while R&D funding increased sixfold. Patents granted in the U.S. for technologies from India, South Korea, Taiwan, and China are soaring.
With projects like a 10-year “American Competitiveness” presidential initiative to double funding for basic research in the physical sciences and engineering, the U.S. government has begun to respond to the scientific community’s concerns. It’s “a very good start,” says Arthur Bienenstock, special assistant to the president of Stanford University for federal research policy. By almost any measure, the United States is still at the top of the world. It will take focused effort to keep us there.