aei.org – Science and technology investment is no place for Washington to get stingy right now. Well, stingier.
Trade wars aren’t going to keep America the leading nation on the technological frontier. And to some extent, the Trump administration recognizes that reality and is proposing to spend more on certain areas of science and technology research. Its new fiscal 2021 budget blueprint would double AI research funding across the government. For instance: The budget includes nearly $1 billion for artificial intelligence research at the National Science Foundation, a more than 70 percent increase in funding.
things are good and getting better for researchers, as long as they’re taking
part in sectors the administration has identified as “Industries of the Future”
deemed critical to global economic competition and national security. In
addition to AI, there’s quantum information science, 5G and advanced
communications, biotechnology, and advanced manufacturing.
But things are less flush elsewhere, as the administration pursues “thoughtful reallocations in lower priority areas.” Overall, according to Wired, the budget proposes to spend $142.2 billion in research and development, which is nine percent less than in the current year, including cuts of $424 million at the National Science Foundation, $4.7 billion at the Defense Department, and $3.2 billion at the Department of Energy.
So some problems: First, there’s no pressing need to sharpen pencils here. Federal spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP has declined to 0.7 percent in 2018 from 1.2 percent in 1976. “This decline is notable as federally funded R&D is an important source of support, particularly for the higher education sector and for the basic research enterprise of the United States,” notes the National Science Foundation. And new academic research suggesting government R&D “crowds in” rather than “crowds out” private R&D helps strengthen the case for more public research. Another analysis argues that “unless research inputs are continuously raised, economic growth will continue to slow in advanced nations.” One recent report recommends Washington spend $25 billion on AI research alone over the next half decade.
trying to focus on key sectors and deemphasizing others is a risky central
planning strategy that could result in America missing potential advances in
other fields. CRISPR didn’t always seem so promising. You never know what’s on
a voyage of scientific discovery.
Finally, the administration wants to shut down the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, often criticized for its failure to generate radical, blockbuster results. But a recent National Academies report found “no signs that ARPA-E is failing, or on a path to failing.” Given the threat of climate change and the need to out-science and out-innovate the problem, this seems like exactly the sort of effort that deserves more time to succeed.