Published 5:00 a.m. ET May 20, 2019
We pioneered the government investment strategy that gave us GPS and the internet. Now China is using it to race forward while our research flags.
U.S. and Chinese trade talks hit a snagÂ this month, imperiling hopes for aÂ deal that the two sides have been pursuing for over a year. The negotiators are working to resolve a broad array of issues rooted in legitimate concern about fairness for U.S. businesses.
But even if all trade issues were resolved tomorrow, China has been racing ahead in scientific investment and progress. ThatÂ poses an increasingly urgent challenge to U.S. scientific supremacy. Chinaâs objective, President Xi Jinping said in a speech last year, is to achieve global dominance in science and technology for the 21st century.
And it is well on its way to achieving that goal in several areas. Chinaâs top university now leads the world with the most citations in math and computing research and is making similar gains with other highly cited STEM research.Â China became the first country to land on the far side of the moonÂ this year. It is already the worldâs leading producer of supercomputers. And it has taken the lead in next-generation green energy.
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Long seen as the worldâs factory floor, China has developed a sophisticated strategy for achieving supremacy in the industries of the future. The countryâs Made in China 2025 initiative outlines its intent to become the global leader in frontier sectors such as advanced robotics, aerospaceÂ and biotechnology. Made in China 2025Â presents âa real existential threat to U.S. technological leadership,â China expert Lorand Laskai wrote last year when he was a research associateÂ at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Chamber of Commerce echoed that concern in a recent report.
We must invest in scientific research
But if the United States cedes its role as the global leader in technology and innovation, it is far more likely to result from our own dithering than deft Chinese leadership. The Business Roundtable issued a clarion call for a U.S. whole-of-government research and development strategy that redoubles federal investment in research.Â For decades, robust federal investment in scientific research enabled great surges in our understanding of the world while fueling economic growth. The internet, GPSÂ and life-saving immunotherapiesÂ all grew out of discoveries supported by federal research dollars.
Despite these great strides, however, federal investment in scientific research as a share of the economy has not just languished but significantly diminished over the past few decades. Today, the U.S. governmentâs investment in researchÂ and developmentÂ is roughly half what it was in the mid-1970s as a percent of GDP.Â With congressional leadership, the United States recently approved funding increases to several federal research agencies after many years of cuts or essentially flat funding.
But sporadic, short-lived increases are woefully inadequate for whatâs required to maintain our competitive edge. As Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyÂ President Rafael Reif has argued, AmericaÂ needs to make significant increased investments in areas like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.Â These efforts must add to federal research funding or we risk falling critically behind in other vital fields. And crucially, this increased support must continue into the future to ensure our sustained global leadership.
China is using ourÂ research model to win
China is able to play the long game, thanks to a political system not susceptible to short-term time frames. In doing so, it has leapfrogged other developed nations and now closely trails the United StatesÂ in research investment as it seeks global technological supremacy. It shows no signs of slowing down.
This isÂ because China is playing to win. For decades, Chinese leaders witnessed AmericaÂ vigorously support federally funded research and reap the immense rewards of the resulting discoveries and innovations. They have emulated the extraordinarily successful research model we pioneered.
Whether the United States relinquishes its role as the worldâs preeminent producer of leading scientific research and innovation is largely dependent on our own strategy for technological development. America boasts a variety of advantages over China in this arena:
âºAÂ free society that protects dissent and encourages divergent thinking.
âºRobust protections for intellectual property.
âºAn independent judiciary that enforces the rule of law.
These are all essential ingredients to our dynamic economy. But decades of history have shown that federal support for scientific research is instrumental in driving technological innovation. We ignore that lesson at our peril.
Peter McPherson,Â president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities,Â served as deputy Treasury secretary from 1987 to 1989.
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