President Obama’s three percent solution
— Jonathan R. Hoganson is the deputy executive director of the Technology CEO Council, a public policy advocacy group that includes the CEOs of Intel, HP, Dell, Applied Materials, EMC, Motorola, Micron Technology and IBM. He previously was the legislative director for Rep. Rahm Emanuel and policy director for the House Democratic Caucus. The views expressed are his own. —
A few years from now, when our economy has regained its stride, we may look back to a little-noticed announcement last Monday that spurred the resurgence. Amid swine-flu hysteria and First 100 Days hoopla, President Obama quietly announced a commitment to spending three percent of the U.S. GDP on science research and development.
This is a profoundly important step, but if we are to continue to lead the world, the United States must also develop a comprehensive policy to foster innovation. For too long, the United States has lived in a “next month” mindset when it came to our economy. This short-termitis has led to sub-prime lending, credit card debt and a general lack of long-term planning. And in no place has this been more evident than in the sciences.
For the past decade our spending on research and development has been anemic at best, and beginning in 2005, federal funding of academic research actually began to decline. This was happening at the same time our overseas competitors were increasing their commitment. For example, China has increased its R&D spending by an average of 17 percent each year in an effort to catch and surpass developed nations’ spending.
Currently, the United States ranks seventh among developed countries in R&D spending as a ratio of its GDP. Is that a recipe for continued economic and technology leadership?
There is, in fact, a direct correlation between R&D and scientific leadership. As the commitment to science ebbed, so did the U.S. share of worldwide patents and research articles in peer-reviewed journals. And R&D has been proven to catalyze economic growth and enable comparative advantage for developed companies and economies.
Now is the time to make technology and innovation a cornerstone. In the last three months we have made a good start, making broadband, health-care information technology and green tech key components of the stimulus package. The president has proposed a 10-year extension of the R&D tax credit to give businesses the incentive to continue to invest in cutting-edge technologies and products. By advancing these initiatives, we are developing the foundation of a national innovation strategy, but Congress must work with the president to advance a comprehensive strategy.
In recent years, countries such as Germany, France, Japan, New Zealand, Finland, Australia, Denmark, and Australia have established or expanded agencies to promote technology and innovation. While the United States is unlikely to create a new agency, the White House can develop an inter-agency strategy that will restore America’s preeminence as the world’s leader in innovation.
This strategy could synergize the Obama administration’s efforts in clean energy, broadband, and health reform, with new initiatives in education and R&D. It could also develop a system for partnering with venture capital to foster entirely new companies and industries. At the same time, we could remove non-tariff trade barriers, enforce international agreements, open new markets and provide a globally competitive corporate tax structure. All of these are crucial components of any inter-agency innovation strategy.
The last time our government put this type of concerted effort into scientific research was President Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Not only did we achieve that goal, it also spawned a generation of scientists and technologies that shaped the 1980’s and 1990’s. What followed was an era of Internet, communications and medical advances that spurred an unprecedented period of economic prosperity.
President Obama’s bold commitment to R&D carries an important reminder that the 1960’s space race was more than a demonstration of increased federal funding; it was a comprehensive strategy to ensure that America led the world. The president seems willing and able to replicate that success today; Congress and industry need to work with his team to make this happen. It’s time for America to take another giant leap for mankind.