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The United States’ Technological Future: An Endless Frontier?

Despite the historical US lead in world research spending, future trends are not positive.

March 4, 2015

Credit: Derek Bruff -

Endless Frontier, the 1945 civilian-science manifesto by U.S. wartime research chief Vannevar Bush, cites the information technology, life-science and consumer-product breakthroughs of the 1930s (radar and radio, sulfa drugs and penicillin, rayon and air conditioners) as evidence of the possible future:

“More jobs, higher wages, shorter hours, more abundant crops…learning to live without the deadening drudgery which has been the burden of the common man for ages past…control of our insect enemies…means of defense against aggression…prevention or cure of diseases.”

Government-led innovation

To bring dreams to earth, Endless Frontier suggested a permanent government commitment by the United States to scientific research and education. This would include federal investment in basic research, scholarships for science and engineering students, transparent patent laws, a research and development tax credit and so on.

Mr. Bush (unrelated to the political family of the same name) seems to have worried that idealistic hopes and predictions of better lives might not be enough to get the job done. So he added a mildly nationalistic warning:

“A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade.”

Seven decades later, the Obama administration hopes to win approval for a $135 billion science budget, replete with interesting follow-ons to the 1930s breakthroughs. It includes projects for deep-space exploration, carbon capture, anti-viral medicine, nano-engineered materials, cyber-security and more.

Apart from the merits of this work, how does it fit into the 21st-century scientific world?

The OECD’s annual “Main Science and Technology Indicators” provides figures for research spending, scientific employment and more in the 34 OECD member countries plus Argentina, China, Taiwan, Russia, Singapore and South Africa.

The OECD’s most recent estimates find the United States home to 1.25 million working researchers, out of roughly 6.3 million worldwide. It is home to 16% of the world’s researchers. By comparison, the United States has about 4% of all world workers.

Measured by spending, the OECD finds about $1.6 trillion in R&D worldwide as of 2013, of which the United States, with a commitment of about $470 billion, is the world’s largest spender.

Unpacking the data

research spending pikto

Beyond the scope of the OECD, The National Science Foundation’s Science & Engineering Indicators 2014 adds data for 15 more countries – India, Pakistan, Brazil, Colombia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Ukraine, Belarus and Serbia. Together, the almost 50 countries bring the total to $1.7 trillion, or about 1.65% of world GDP.

The striking fact about the OECD tallies, though, is not the U.S. commitment (nor that of Europe), but Asia’s post-millennial research boom. Korea, spending 4.15% of GDP on research, is now nearly level with Israel as the world’s top scientific investor (on a percent of GDP basis). China’s spending, having soared from $32 billion to $336 billion since 2000, now makes up 20% of the world total.

As shares of one region rise, the shares for others must fall: the U.S. share has accordingly dropped from 38% in 2000 to 28% in 2013.

Vannevar Bush’s first justification for public science is, of course, more important than his second. Most scientific advances are not intended to benefit just individual nations, but the world at large.

And indeed, wherever the 21st-century analogues of Endless Frontier’s 1930s wonders crop up – ultra-broadband Internet, HIV vaccines, nano-robots, intelligent clothing, zero-emission factories and planes – the world as a whole will be better off.

Nonetheless, as the 2015 R&D budgets maneuver through the reefs of U.S. budget sequesters and short-term savings, Mr. Bush might be thoughtfully concerned about the longer trends.


An old science manifesto suggested the US government must lead innovation in science. Has it succeeded?

Korea is now nearly even with Israel as the world's top research investor.

The US dominates the field of research and development, accounting for 28% of global research spending.

As other nations rise to the fore on research spending, where will the US stand?