The USA occupies a position of global leadership in the field of R&D. Over the last 30 years, the proportion of GDP devoted to R&D has averaged at around 2.5%. Although this figure corresponds to international standards - apart from the towering 3.5% of Japan and South Korea - American GDP has remained continuously higher than others. This fact granted to American R&D more funds and fostered the commercial and military power of the country. Indeed, this positive trend should be maintained, to ensure a steady development of the economic, industrial and social fabric of the United States.
Speaking in absolute terms, at present the United States is still the country that invests most in scientific research. In fact, the USA is outspending its most direct competitors (namely the EU, Japan, and China) regarding resources deployed. In 2013, these players respectively spent in R&D $ 340, 152 and 294 billion, against the $ 456 billion expenditure of the United States. Moreover, government-funded programs such as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) indeed help to bridge the gap between scientific findings and their commercial exploitation. Notably, the SBIR program allocates roughly $ 2.5 billion per year, which amount up to 25% of all early stage technology funding. This figure underscores the major importance of the Governmental support to R&D. Besides, the interaction between governmental agencies, private research institutes, and university-led laboratories plays a significant role in catalyzing scientific development.
Nevertheless, between 1996 and 2011, the support of the US Government for scientific research decreased by 8%. Over the same period, Japan and the European Union registered a 5% decrease, though China observed a remarkable 12% increase. On the one hand, this reduction in public funding in the US has been counterbalanced by an increase in private spending, maintaining the R&D/GDP ratio substantially unaltered. Speaking about this, the business sector in 2013 strikingly accounted for 65% of the total American R&D funding. On the other hand, due to the profit maximization rationale that drives private investors, development gained a disproportionate predominance over research. In other words, the long-run sustainability of American scientific progress might be undermined by an imbalance between these two factors. Anyway, between 2000 and 2010 the share of multinationals’ investments in the US declined from 88% to 84%, meaning that also a part of the innovative capacity has left the country. Additionally, the efficacy of American scientific research is endangered by the climate of uncertainty researchers have to cope with. In fact, research institutions depending from public support cannot run the risk to undertake medium-long run projects because of the year-by-year funding that their projects receive. Apart from that, the different priorities that Republican and Democratic administrations impose to scientific research also threat the coherence of American R&D strategy in the short run.
Shifting to the international scenario, the external pressure might also jeopardize American global scientific supremacy. In fact, although emerging economies still lag behind regarding technological capabilities, they are striving to reach levels of excellence. In particular, it is likely that by 2020 China will spend more than the US in research and development activities. Be that as it may, the improvements that Chinese scientific expertise has made since the year 2000 are outstanding. The share of academic publications increased from 6% to 20% of the global output, the number of graduates in scientific subjects per year is more than five times higher, and the share of global R&D expenditure skyrocketed from 5% to 20%. Accordingly, the extent of China’s geopolitical ambitions reflects these trends, as demonstrated by the renovation of the military, the consequent territorial claims in the South China Sea, and the attempt to independently build a space station.
However, the global scenario also offers several opportunities to enhance the performance of American R&D. As a matter of fact, international scientific cooperation projects allow to share and rationalize the tasks between countries with a common goal. Thus, if carefully planned, these mechanisms of cooperation make research activity more efficient. In this regard, a partnership with research institutes operating in a EU-backed framework might be useful. In fact, among the first fifteen countries for R&D expenditures, four are part of the European Union, namely: Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Accordingly, the total R&D spending of the EU amounts to 20.7% of the world share, which is relatively close to the 27% of the United States. Additionally, Europe owns a substantial scientific capital, as proved by its 27% rate in the global output of scientific publications. However, in contrast to the US, the EU lacks the necessary bureaucratic freedom to translate that scientific knowledge into valuable applications. Hence, it is likely that the US could derive higher relative gains than the European partners from cooperation. In fact, one of the main features that made American R&D activity successful is the capacity to transform the outcomes of research into saleable applications.
In sum, since international competition is growing, the US should fill three gaps that threaten its global scientific leadership. First of all, there is a need for more flexible funding plans at home. That is, domestic research activity should be endowed with enough resources to undertake long run projects. Accordingly, the second fundamental point is that the Government must enhance its support to American scientific effort. Indeed, a long-term engagement to recover from the 8% contraction that occurred between 1996 and 2011 would create a climate of trust that would also boost private investments. Thirdly, a particular attention should be put in nurturing the domestic and international networks of knowledge, because they enrich the intellectual capital and allow to valorize the available resources.