The refocus from long-term research to shorter-term development in industry -- and Bell Labs is by no means the only example -- has been mirrored by a similar trend among the Washington agencies that fund science and technology, such as the Departments of Defense and Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Federal funding for R&D has not declined overall -- it has, in fact, increased. But since the early 1990s, funding has been more and more focused on the short-term needs of government.
In particular, critics say, under the George W. Bush administration, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- which gave birth to the Internet, computer timesharing, computer graphics, LANs and much more -- has concentrated its research on short-term needs for warfare and homeland security. DARPA funding now tends to go to those who can promise measurable results in a year or two.
"DARPA funding has become short term, applications-oriented, highly competitive -- with small amounts of money and lots of reporting requirements," says Leonard Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an Internet pioneer in the 1960s. "That does not engender quality research."
Kleinrock recalls an earlier DARPA that would bring in extremely bright program managers and give them generous funding and carte blanche to pursue basic research in projects that could go on for many years, often with no promise of tangible results.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a recent bulletin to its members about the federal budget, said, "Although high-priority investments in physical sciences research, weapons development and human space exploration help to keep the federal R&D outlook brighter than the bleak outlook for domestic programs overall, the FY 2009 budget continues the recent trends of declining federal support for research."
The AAAS said the federal investment in basic and applied research would fall in real terms for the fifth year in a row under the fiscal year 2009 budget proposal. Meanwhile, it said, other countries, including China and Korea, are boosting government research by 10% or more annually.
The AAAS also presented data that shows that despite a big surge in health research funding for the National Institutes of Health between 1998 and 2003, total federal R&D spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has been in decline since 1976.
"Federal research investments are shrinking as a share of the U.S. economy just as other nations are increasing their investments," the AAAS observes.
The Technology Policy and Assessment Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology recently completed a study that compares the technological progress of 33 countries between 1993 and 2007. It concluded that China has progressed more -- and more rapidly than any of the other countries -- while the U.S. and Japan have slowly declined.
The Georgia Tech study computes the relative "technological standing" for the countries based on myriad social, economic and technological indicators, some statistical and some based on expert opinion. Combining the indicators provides a numeric measure showing that China has moved from a position far behind the U.S. to a point roughly even with it.
"The pattern is inexorable," says Alan Porter, one of the authors of the study. "China is coming up strongly, and it's in high-tech areas, not just cheap consumer goods."
China's rise is aided by an authoritarian government, low wages and a good manufacturing base, he says, but that isn't all. "You see tremendous effort in research in China," Porter says. "The U.S. and China are neck and neck in basic science."