Budget Crisis Threatens Future of U.S. Science

While U.S. is cutting back, India, China and Korea are increasing investments in science and engineering research, development and education.

American domination in science and technology is threatened by a budget crisis that could sap research investment just as competitors such as China are boosting spending, U.S. experts say.

Republicans have vowed to cut back federal spending in order to reduce the massive deficit that has ballooned to nearly 10% of gross domestic product (GDP). President Barack Obama has also recognized the need to get spending under control and has proposed a 5% spending cut across many government agencies in 2011 while Republicans want a bigger, 10% cut.

Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that those aims could translate to a 5%-10% cut in research and development for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

"One big fear is that one version of the Republican agenda suggested bringing funding back to 2008 levels and that for science would be catastrophic," Leshner said. "These kinds of budget cuts work against the ultimate national goals of restoring the U.S. economy and its international prowess."

Meanwhile, Leshner said "virtually all competitor countries, including India, China and Korea, are increasing investments in science and engineering research, development, and education.

"U.S. funding looks like it could be heading the opposite direction."

And that trend is worrisome for scientists who want to encourage younger generations to enter the field, and who want to maintain a cutting edge in science and engineering which fuel economic growth, he said. "This would have two consequences that are very grave," he said.

"One, it will affect the making of discoveries and the pace of discoveries. And two, it will send a message to young scientists, or potential scientists that this country is not committed to science, exactly at the time that our major competitor countries... are in fact investing in science."

The National Academy of Sciences says China has over the past 15 years moved from 14th place in number of studies published to its current standing in second place behind the United States.

China has also become a leading exporter of high technology and aims to make more advances in environmentally friendly technologies.

For instance, Leshner said China has begun a program to "buy back" native scientists who were trained in other countries. "China's commitment to science is very clear," he added. "Certainly China is threatening American pre-eminence in many areas."

According to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, "almost all the science and technology research that we take from granted now came out of the Defense Department spending post World War II," he told CNN in a recent interview.

Among those inventions are semi-conductors, the creation of the Internet, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), all of which gave rise to multibillion dollar industries.

Such programs "are periodically under federal budget attack for one reason or another and yet they are literally the start of billion dollar industries. It's important that that investment occur," he said.

But other industries of the future, such as nanotechnology advances in medicine, energy and device production, require a level of specialization that the United States is not ready for yet, according to Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM. "The problem in America today is the next level of industries requires a level of skill, educational level, that we are not producing in this country," he told CNN.

"We are not producing workers who have the skills to move up the next step. So we got a competition for high-paying jobs, high-return jobs, and we are not, in America, investing in the skills of our workers to allow us to compete globally in those industries."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010

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