Basic Research and National Security

October 31, 2005

The list of associations, agencies and other organizations who see a crisis brewing for the United States in the declining state of its scientific and technological infrastructure is long and growing seemingly by the week. Most of the arguments focus on the risk that lack of innovation will turn the country into an economic also-ran.

On Friday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies became the latest group to sound the alarm, but from a slightly different angle, declaring that the country's diminishing spending on basic research in physics, mathematics, computer science and engineering threatens to undermine its national security.

The country is not yet in a crisis, and that may be creating a sense of complacency, says "Waiting for Sputnik: Basic Research and Strategic Competition," the report from the center, a nonprofit group in Washington that advises policy makers on international security. There is no Cold War with another menacing nuclear superpower and no race to reach the moon first, events that 50 years ago created a "sense of urgency that led America’s political leaders to make the investments needed to pull ahead" in the competition for technological research and development.

But the problem is real, the report warns, arguing that in an environment in which other countries are ratcheting up their technological abilities -- with countries such as China and India transforming manufacturing technologies to enhance scientific research -- "the U.S. is underinvesting." 

While the country spends more than other countries on R&D over all, the report says, "the figures hide a damaging deficiency in key areas -- basic research in physics, mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering," for which funding has decreased steadily since 1975. "These scientific and engineering disciplines are the basis for military transformation, provide the workforce for sensitive projects, enable other kinds of science, and are the ultimate source of economic growth," the report says.

Some results of this decreased support have already emerged, such as a shortage of non-military scientists qualified to work in national security programs, others are still in the offing, the report warns, including a "shortfall in the research conducted at universities and other institutions that feeds economic and military innovation."

The report accepts as a foregone conclusion that investment in basic research is the government's problem, since corporations have largely abandoned experiments "whose payoff may not appear for a decade. It urges the U.S. government to adopt as a major priority the goal of accelerating innovation to sustain the country's preeminent position in economic growth and national security, and suggests four ways to do that:

  • Restore funding for basic research in the physical sciences and engineering across all domestic non-defense research agencies to the levels needed to meet long-term economic and U.S. national security requirements.
  • Commit a larger proportion of all Defense Department research, development and testing spending to basic research and science and technology work force development.
  • Establish new ways for the federal government to work with private companies and other groups and governments to support basic research.
  • Create new governmental funding vehicles (such as new incentives, special purpose bonds or endowments) to build on current federal allocations.

"The argument for increasing the investment is straightforward," the report concludes. "American economic and military strength rests in good measure on its technological strength. That technological strength is the outgrowth of a dynamic process of innovation that connects the discovery of new scientific knowledge to economic and military activities.... Basic research is the source of the knowledge that powers innovation and technological leadership.... Decisions made today on the level and distribution of the federal investment in basic research will affect America’s influence and strength power for the next several decades." 

The center's report was welcomed by the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, a group of companies, scientific societies and higher education association formed last year. "It is our hope that this report, along with reports issued recently by a host of business, academic and other organizations, will convince the Administration and the Congress that our national and economic security, indeed our global leadership, depends on innovation, and that innovation depends on a commitment to basic research, not only at the Pentagon but also at the National Science Foundation, the Departments of Energy and Commerce, and elsewhere."

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