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It has become trendy for scientists to try their hand at political office. The Huffington Post reports hundreds of scientists in the U.S. had their names on ballots in the recent midterm elections. The reason seems to be widespread worries about a downplaying of scientific conclusions in political mandates.
Yet recent statistics indicate these scientifically educated nouveau politicians might be worrying about the wrong data set. It could be argued that the funding of science in private industry, rather than the government policies surrounding it, are of most concern.
That’s the feeling you get from economists who say the days of big U.S. investments in science are over. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) estimates that China now spends about 45% as much as the U.S. on R&D, but that figure is really equivalent to 88% of what the U.S. spends if purchasing power is factored in. R&D funding is rising rapidly in China. In the U.S., not so much, particularly among manufacturers.
The disparity is hard to figure given all the recent emphasis in the U.S. on economic growth. It’s become a truism that increases in national output are based largely on advances in science. And some of the biggest scientific advances have come not just from universities but also from prominent manufacturing firms – say the words “Nobel Prize” and institutions such as Bell Labs and IBM spring to mind.
But since the 1990s, large industrial U.S. firms slashed budgets for big corporate labs. There are claims that small research-intensive start-ups have taken up some of the slack. But by some measures, industry just doesn’t put as much value on science work as it did in the heyday of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center and General Electric’s labs.
So say researchers from Duke University and the University of East Anglia in the UK who recently studied the changing nature of corporate research. Writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research, they concluded that companies generally are devaluing basic research while simultaneously boosting their patenting efforts. One telling statistic: Whereas Fortune 500 firms garnered 41% of the prestigious R&D 100 awards in 1971, they accounted for only 6% of those awards in 2006.
Meanwhile, the implied value of patents in the marketplace, including the premium paid for patents in merger and acquisition activities, has remained stable. The implication is that work that goes into patenting – which is largely in the category of development rather than research – has a higher value in the eyes of company managers. That companies spend less on science but emphasize patenting suggests there’s more incentive to protect what you have rather than do fundamental work that could lead to new ideas, says the NBER team.
One culprit, the researchers argue, is global competition as measured by changes in the amount of Chinese imports. A growing Chinese import stream is correlated with diminishing investments in U.S. science, R&D, and in physical equipment. All in all, low-cost competition may encourage incremental and patentable research but may discourage more long-term, basic research, according to the NBER researchers.
Interestingly, there’s no evidence that patent applications draw less from scientific discoveries these days, nor reason to think company managers see scientific discoveries as becoming less useful, the NBER team says.
All in all, if scientists-turned-politicians really want to make an impact, perhaps they ought to do more hand-wringing about why corporations don’t bother to fund science and less about bending it for political reasons.