The recent report of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, titled "Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise," reduces to two sentences what is perhaps the greatest challenge facing America: "As a fraction of its gross domestic product (GDP), U.S. investment in research and development (R&D) used to be first in the world. Today it is eighth (and fourth among large economies)."
That challenge goes far beyond the research enterprise. America's economic preeminence is at stake, along with the jobs that result from it, and that's a lot to have at risk.
As the report states:
Robert Solow's pioneering study (earning him one of the Nobel Prizes mentioned previously) showed that more than half, and perhaps as much as 85 percent of productivity growth in the United States in the first half of the 20th century could be attributed to technical advances. Other studies indicate that 50 percent or more of the nearly sevenfold real growth the country has enjoyed since the end of World War II has been attributable to technological innovation resulting from investments in research and development.
America needs jobs, and our nation's ability to provide them depends on our continued economic preeminence.
In the cover letter to President Obama transmitting the report, PCAST co-chairs John P. Holdren and Eric S. Lander summarize its recommendations as follows:
Among the actions that PCAST recommends, three stand out in scope and importance: (1) that you reaffirm your stated goal that U.S. total R&D expenditures (across the public and private sectors) should achieve and sustain a level of 3 percent of GDP; (2) that actions be taken, some achievable entirely by Executive decision, to increase the stability and predictability of Federal research funding; and (3) that Congress not only make the R&D tax credit permanent, but increase it to at least 17 percent, as you have already advocated.
These recommendations should be implemented quickly, and they dovetail with PCAST's recommendations earlier this year on how to produce 1 million additional college graduates over the next decade with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Those recommendations are contained in a report issued on Feb. 7, 2012, titled "Engage to Excel," which identifies this numerical goal as crucial to maintaining U.S. preeminence in the STEM fields 0- and, therefore, in scientific and technological innovation.
PCAST's work is vital to providing the background and framework needed to focus America's scientific and governmental leadership on the challenge at hand. Increased and predictable funding and incentives for research and development are essential, as is a workforce skilled at filling the resulting jobs. But it's also important that America's approach to research shift from safe and incremental research to the "high-risk, high-reward" research that can transform entire industries and economies.
It's "high-risk, high-reward" research that typified the NASA space program of the 20th century, and we must resume our national commitment to transformational research, in space as well as in many other fields, if we are to continue our economic preeminence.
In a speech at Caltech five years ago on the 50th anniversary of space exploration, Ronald D. Sugar, chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman Corporation at the time, reflected on the connection between the transformative role of space exploration and the resulting economic activity. He said:
If there is one theme that these first 50 years in space reinforces again and again, it must surely be this: Our journey into space has returned benefits that were unforeseen and unpredictable on that day in early October 1957, benefits that go far beyond the inventions of Tang, Velcro and Teflon ... Space exploration and use has created new industries that today generate billions of dollars of revenue, employ millions of people worldwide and improve the lives of virtually everyone.
He added, "Throughout history, those nations that explored first were the first to prosper. Those that lagged behind did so at great cost to themselves economically, culturally and in terms of their national security."
Exploration is the key. Research and development are essential for it, and enhanced research and development are transformational byproducts of it.
America must remain in the forefront of future exploration in science and technology, and PCAST's recommendations are crucial to ensuring that our nation stays there.
James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), which celebrates its Centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- this year.