Lawmakers worry China will top U.S. in scientific research

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As budget constraints limit how much federal funding can go to research and development, lawmakers said Thursday they worried America is losing its edge over international rivals — China in particular.

The U.S. will spend $429 billion in public and private money on R&D in 2014, while China will spend only $208 billion. But China’s spending is a greater percentage of the total economy and is increasing at a faster rate. By 2022, China will surpass the U.S., Cora Marrett, acting director of the National Science Foundation, told a House Appropriations Committee hearing.


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The situation was frightening for lawmakers, who said it will take “dramatic action” to preserve American superiority.

“I think we’re facing economic decline, and I know people don’t want to hear it. We’re facing scientific decline, and I think we’re facing moral decline,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees science funding, at a hearing on the NSF’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget. “I’ve never been more concerned for our country than I am right now.”

President Obama earlier this month submitted a budget request seeking $7.255 billion for the NSF in fiscal 2015, an increase of $83.1 million, or 1.2 percent.

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland Republican, said China’s heavy investment in science and its booming economy may be linked — and that not investing in sciences could be the cause of economic stagnation in America. He called on Congress to make a priority of financing scientific research, so the fiscal demands of entitlement programs do not “choke out” discretionary spending over time.

Ms. Marrett said the U.S. students regularly rank in the middle of the pack on international tests in science and math, often topped by Japan, Singapore and Finland.

The problem is bigger than the quality of science and math education, since many science and math majors at U.S. universities don’t plan to stay in the country, said Rep. Chaka Fattah, Pennsylvania Democrat and ranking member of the committee.

“We have the best programs in the world, but when you look at who’s actually seeking the degree in hard sciences at American universities, these are not American students,” he said. “Many of these students are now here and their intention is not to stay here. They’re here to get a degree, and they’re going back to compete against us in their homeland.”

While science and research budgets may be under pressure, Ms. Marrett said America has a competitive advantage over other countries because it supports a culture that’s open to new ideas and inventions.

“There is still an advantage that the U.S., has in terms of innovation,” she said. “The investments made in other places are not always the most innovative or the most creative ideas. That’s why at the National Science Foundation, we try to make sure we’re supporting the most innovative ideas.”

Still, several lawmakers said Thursday said they wish the country could spend more on research and development, though it’s unclear where the money could come from with tight budgets and competing priorities.

“I wish we could be investing even more, especially as other nations are rising to challenge our pre-eminence,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat.

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