As we have seen before, technological change follows a smooth, exponential curve, with a relatively predictable rate of progress. However, the fruits of this change accrue to those individuals, corporations, and most importantly, those nations which position themselves to benefit from it. This requires funding for even the earliest stages of the process, where the return is going to be highly uncertain.
The US remains the foremost source of scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations, partly due to our willingness to fund federal basic research and sustain institutions that can productively utilize these funds. The $140 Billion that the US spends on federal R&D is greater than the nominal total GDP of all but 35 countries. But are we funding research enough, and in the correct way?
First, let us take note of federal R&D expenditures as a percentage of GDP (which is the only way to accurately measure it).
First, it appears that President Clinton trimmed R&D each year he was in office, until R&D fell from 1.2% to just 0.8% of GDP. The brief budget surplus he took credit for near the end of his term was largely at the expense of R&D expenditures. Had he maintained R&D expenditures at the same percentage of GDP throughout his Presidency, he would not have achieved a budget surplus. Now tell me, which outcome would you have rather had?
President Bush increased R&D funding and got it back to historical levels in his first term. However, his second term has brought another slight downward trend, which I hope is reversed in the next few years. He is still keeping it higher than it was for most of the Clinton years, however.
Some have argued that funding should gradually become an increasingly larger percentage of GDP, as technological changes continue to affect a greater share of the US economy. I might agree, but I also feel that since US scientific innovations lead to products and services that benefit every nation in the world, other prosperous nations should also be obligated to fund basic research in their own countries. Europe and China spend much less than the US, as a percentage of GDP, and it is time they they contributed more to the advancement of human knowledge, rather than simply benefit from US resources.
As far as which fields of science are being funded and which are not, the next chart provides the answer. Basic research (the red line in the first chart) is broken out by agency.
It does appear that President Bush has reduced the funding of NASA, but he has increased NIH funding tremendously. Even defense has not risen over the past several years, contrary to popular belief. Energy reseach has risen slowly over the past 30 years, but there has been no major boost to the DoE at any point.
There you have it - the state of the seeds that lead to fruits we reap years and even decades hence. Is it enough? How do we measure which agency uses a dollar better relative to others? Should we be spending this much when other countries spend much less, and simply wait for our breakthroughs? Can more be done with the same amount of funding dollars?