Friday, March 15, 2013

Bruce Alberts on Future of American Science

“I have seven grandchildren, and I worry about their future. The nation that I was raised in, the United States, has clearly lost its way at a time when the world badly needs wise leadership. Nations with a long-term view are making huge investments in their infrastructure—transportation, water, energy, waste, and recreation. And they have a laserlike focus on supporting science and engineering research with government resources. As examples, Germany, China, and South Korea come to mind. Meanwhile, the United States is living off its past. Not only do we face a crumbling infrastructure but our federal investments in fundamental long-term R&D have been stagnant, dropping from 1.25% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 1985 to 0.87% in 2013.† Now, on top of that comes a mindless budget "sequester" that will make the situation considerably worse, causing the U.S. National Science Foundation to announce last week that it may award 1000 fewer research grants in 2013 than it did in 2012.

                                                     - Bruce Alberts (Science

This is not a thought of an average US citizen. Dr. Alberts, a past president of National Academy of Sciences, Editor-in-Chief of famous journal “Science”, is also a path breaking scientist in this own right, a leader, and visionary in American Science. Almost everyone in our generation of molecular biologists grew up reading his classic book during our college days that inspired us making our career in this field. His concerns seem quite genuine.
One study predicts that 2023 may be the year that America loses its global Research & Development (R&D) leadership.
China is on its track to overtake the U.S. in spending on research and development in ~ 10 years, as federal R&D spending (in the U.S.) either declines or remains flat.
However, it should not be forgotten that the United States still maintains a large lead in R&D spending over China, with federal and private sector investment expected to reach $424 billion next year, a 1.2% increase.
By contrast, China's overall R&D spending is $220 billion next year, an increase of 11.6% over 2012, a rate similar to previous years, according to the 2013 Global R&D Funding Forecast prepared by Battelle, a research and technology development organization, and R&D Magazine. "The U.S. still has a significant lead and advantage in R&D over all of these countries," said Martin Grueber, one of the authors of the report and a lead researcher at Battelle, "but the concern is R&D is a long-term investment, and as these other countries continue to grow their R&D capabilities ... how long can we maintain that advantage?"

A major share of R&D research in the U.S. is funded by the federal government, which is expected to budget $129 billion for R&D next year, a decline of 1.4%. This figure could decrease even further if Congress does not resolve its budget impasse.
Government R&D spending is considered significant as  because, unlike the private sector, it funds basic research. This is research that often takes years or decades to yield results, but it can also lead to new industries and jobs. Basic research is the back bone of industrial growth in any economy.
Other emerging economies, besides China, are also spending more on R&D. India, for instance, will invest about $45 billion next year in R&D, an increase of just over 12%.
President Obama has called for national R&D expenditures equal to 3% of GDP, which includes private and government investment. The forecast for next year is 2.66% of GDP, according to the Battelle forecast.

The White House also believes that China may overtake the U.S. in R&D spending.
"China's investment as a percentage of its GDP shows continuing, deliberate growth that, if it continues, should surpass the roughly flat United States investment within a decade," said the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

One significant but often ignored aspect of R&D operations conducted by U.S. is offshoring, which according to the White House report, "has negative long-term consequences for the United States."
The report also said that R&D returns to the U.S. economy are "likely highest when the research is both generated and used within the United States."

With a battery of talented scientists, engineers, medical doctors, present in the country, future of American excellence in Science and Technology is still bright, provided political leadership is honest and strong enough to resolve this issue sooner and act faster. Unfortunately, this is the most disheartening part – US Congress does not appear likely to take steps in the near term to improve R&D spending. Hope they are listening to what Dr. Alberts is echoing in his editorial piece this week.  


  1. I don't think "sequestration" is a viable option...just like Tea party it may not sustain for long. My take is..may be in next 4-5 years economy, jobs should be back on track, until then the situation is gloomy!!

  2. Yeah, I agree with you. They can not afford to take it longer than that. It has happened earlier too with American economy....and we have always thrived back with more vigor, power....Amen !