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Asia trumping US on science R&D

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The budget's math "is such that it's going to be very hard to make any sort of dramatic new investments" in research, Mr. White says. "On the other hand, over the last five years we always find ourselves at the last minute fighting at the margins." For instance, in fiscal year 2008, budget negotiations bogged down over $22 billion Congress added in nondefense discretionary spending, out of a $932 billion discretionary budget, he explains. The R&D portion of that $22 billion – at least among the government's biggest R&D players – was about $3 billion. Either way, "that's not a lot of money," he says.

Beginning with fiscal year 2005, federal spending on research has fallen off after accounting for inflation. The decline may advance into fiscal year 2009 with an expected revision to inflation figures, according to a recent analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The drop-off comes after a five-year sustained increase, driven largely by money Congress pumped into the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The US spends more on R&D – including industrial R&D spending – than any other country on the planet. At $344 billion, the US accounts for roughly a third of global R&D spending. Japan comes in at No. 2, spending $139 billion. China, Japan, and South Korea combined account for 27 percent of the global total, outstripping the European Union's investment.

Yet US R&D spending between 1991 and 2006 has hovered between 2.6 to 2.8 percent of gross domestic product. Japan and Korea, however, have increased their investments during that period to more than 3 percent of GDP. China has captured attention for its growth rate, rising from 1 to 1.4 percent of GDP in five years – the government's typical economic planning horizon. It's a growth rate that closely matches Korea's over the same period. This spending gauge often is seen as a better indicator ,than raw spending numbers of a country's commitment to R&D as an economic priority.

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