China charges ahead in science funding as the US stagnates

When the New York Times talks about the US falling behind in science — or when I do — it’s worth looking at what we mean.

The US has long been the world leader in science and technology. In 2003, the US accounted for 30% of all scientific publications, and in 2005 it accounted for 30% of all research expenditures. However, that first number has fallen precipitously (it was 38% in 1992), probably because the second number is also falling.

Adding up the numbers

Probably the two most significant sources of public science funding the US are the National Science Foundation (NSF), which covers most types of foundational research, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds medicine- and health-related research (this is broadly interpreted — I’ve done research using NIH funds).

The following chart shows the levels of NIH funding during the Bush administration:

China charges ahead in science funding as the US stagnates

As can be seen, the numbers are pretty flat from 2003 on. In fact, it hasn’t even kept up with inflation.

Here are the numbers for NSF, which are similarly flat in recent years:

China charges ahead in science funding as the US stagnates

To compare with the previous administration, NIH’s budget increased 44% in the Bush years — mostly during the first two. In contrast, it grew over 70% during the Clinton years. (I couldn’t track down NSF funding levels in 1992.)

Well, at least funding isn’t decreasing. That’s good, right?

Steady levels of funding are better than falling levels of funding, but only barely. First, research has driven the US economy for a long time, but its importance grows with each year. This means it requires more investment.

Second, research becomes more expensive with time. The Clinton and Bush years witnessed the incredible explosion in neuroimaging, which has revolutionized neuroscience. Neuroimaging is also incredibly expensive. (My off-hand recollection is that it costs about $500/hour to use an fMRI machine.) The number of neuroimaging projects has grown exponentially in the last two decades. That money must come from somewhere.

Also, in terms of the US’s relative position with the rest of the world, it’s important to point out that other countries are emphatically not dropping the ball. These are China’s government science and technology expenditures from 2001 to 2006:

China charges ahead in science funding as the US stagnates

That is much more like it. Chinese research expenditures have been increasing rapidly for the last couple decades, but I graphed only the Bush-era data I could find in order to make it comparable to the charts above.

China is of course not alone. The EU, like China, currently lags far behind the US in terms of research expenditures. However, the EU parliament adopted a plan to increase expenditures (this include private-sector spending) to 3% of the GDP, which would put it slightly ahead of the US in terms of percentage of GDP and well ahead of the US in terms of total expenditures (the EU’s GDP is larger than that of the US).

The Road Ahead

Although nobody should be a one-issue voter, I firmly believe that investment in science funding is crucial to America’s future. As I pointed out recently, Barack Obama has repeatedly called for substantial increases in US science funding. McCain’s position is unclear at best.

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