Editorial: Research delivers benefits U.S. can't afford to lose
Mary Sue Coleman
Exclusive to The Detroit Free Press
December 15, 2004
America has been defined through our history as a nation where exploration, opportunity and discovery create forward progress and economic success. Our prosperity is anchored in these deeply held values.
But there are signs all around us that the rest of the world is catching up and even surpassing us in scientific discovery and the translation of those discoveries into business opportunities. We must decide now whether we will do what is necessary to remain the world leader in innovation.
In 2003, I joined Rick Wagoner, chairman and chief executive officer of General Motors Corp., and dozens of other business, education and labor leaders from the Council on Competitiveness to form the National Innovation Initiative. Our report, released today, identifies innovation as the single most important factor in determining America's success through the 21st Century. The development and application of new technologies will play an increasingly pivotal role in the formation of new industries and markets and the creation of high-paying jobs. These realities are reinforced by the report of the Cherry Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth.
For decades the United States has led the globe in these efforts. Federal investment in science has accounted for half of the growth in our economy over the past 50 years. Michigan is fourth in the nation in total research and development investment as a percent of gross state product, and together our research universities bring more than a billion dollars of federal research funding into the state each year.
Yet federal funding has been in long-term decline, and is now only half of its 1960s peak of 2 percent of gross domestic product. Meanwhile, led by China and India, our foreign competitors are increasing their research expenditures, research-intensive universities and production of PhD scientists. Five nations spend more on research as a share of GDP than the United States does, and foreign-owned companies and foreign-born investors now account for nearly half of all U.S. patents. The time to correct this problem is now, while we still maintain a substantial lead in total research investment.
In 1970, private industry supported one-third of all U.S. research and development. Today its $200-billion annual expenditure represents two-thirds of the national investment. This shift is significant because the bulk of private investment is focused on current science and technology. Basic research is rarely funded by industry because the timeline for return on investment is longer than most corporations can support. Funding such research is inherently a governmental function.
We must recommit to a national investment in basic research, in the physical sciences and engineering as well as in the life sciences. Many of our most innovative industries have been built upon decades of research that had no immediate applications. We could not have imagined in the 1940s that the field of quantum mechanics would give birth to the information technology revolution, nor is it likely that scientists researching atomic motion had in mind the development of global positioning devices. Cell phones, lasers, weather satellites, magnetic resonance imaging, radar and fiber optic technology are all examples of developments arising out of federal funding in basic research.
The most exciting breakthroughs increasingly occur at the intersections between scientific disciplines. Future discoveries in medicine, for example, will depend on combinations of biology, nanotechnology, information sciences, the physical sciences and engineering. It is essential that we expand our investment in the physical sciences in the same manner we have committed to the life sciences. Federal and state governments also must devote a greater share of funding to research that crosses traditional scientific disciplines.
Just as important, we need a bold new educational strategy to encourage American students to pursue science as a career. A sizable segment of our science and engineering work force will retire by the end of this decade, and we are not producing new graduates in sufficient numbers to replace these retirees. We must take deliberate steps to expand the pool of technical talent in Michigan and nationally.
The most effective strategies for fostering innovation will involve new and creative partnerships between government entities, universities, businesses and workers. One area of great promise, for example, is the exploration of hydrogen as an alternative energy source. Earlier this year, the federal government announced a $350-million commitment to support research in this area, with another $225 million coming from private investments. The state also has identified hydrogen fuel cells as an area of investment through the Technology Tri-Corridor.
Investment in innovation and discovery is not a luxury. It is a necessity if we are to remain competitive in a rapidly changing global economy. It is up to all of us—policymakers, business leaders and educators—to work more closely together to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy the dividends of America's zeal for discovery and entrepreneurial spirit.
President Mary Sue Coleman is a principal member of the Council on Competitiveness, which issued a report on its National Innovation Initiative today, and also chaired the Economic Benefits Work Group of the Cherry Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth, which plans to release its report today. Write to her in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.