America will soon find its grip on the levers of international commerce slipping as we turn our backs on a proud tradition of technology innovation. The stewards of our national destiny are busily tightening the tap on the federal R&D budget, the most important source of funding for programs that seek to answer fundamental questions of science and technology.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a collection of academics and private-sector technologists, including a co-author of this piece, used findings funded by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (now DARPA), to participate in implementation of the first wide-area packet switched network (the ARPANET) and the subsequent integrated collection of packet-switched networks (the Internet).
Now DARPA officials have revealed a shift in focus away from its history of open-ended long-range research, which typically has been performed in universities and nonprofit institutions. According to recent news reports, DARPA funding for university researchers in computer science has fallen from $214 million to $123 million from 2001 to 2004. Moreover, the focus of DARPA R&D is more near-term and more immediately defense-oriented than before. While this is defensible in some ways, the largest impacts of long-term research funded in the past by DARPA have been in areas that have wider or dual application to defense and the civilian sector.
The U.S. is already lagging behind in R&D funding. Our total national spending on R&D is 2.7% of our GDP, and now ranks sixth in the world, in relative terms, behind Israel (4.4%), Sweden (3.8%), Finland (3.4%), Japan (3.0%) and Iceland (2.9%). The federal government’s share of total national R&D spending has fallen from 66% in 1964 to 25%.