Says "as a share of the US economy, the government’s support for research and development (R&D) has fallen by nearly two-thirds since the 1960s."

Rush Holt on Friday, September 16th, 2011 in an opinion article

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt says government support of research and development has fallen by nearly two-thirds since the 1960s

Two paths that could affect the future of science are diverging on Capitol Hill, according to U.S. Rep. Rush Holt.

One -- the idea "that the federal government can play no substantive role in advancing science or technology" -- the Democratic congressman calls "grim and pessimistic." The other --  the idea that recognizes federally funded scientific endeavors can help the economy flourish -- Holt calls "far more hopeful."

But, he said, it’s the former that’s taking root in Washington.

"The argument is that the government has been ineffective, that "investment" is a codeword for wasteful spending, and that the only way forward is for the government to lower its sights, stop making new investments, and scale back spending," Holt, a physicist, wrote in an opinion article posted on on Sept. 16. "This view is encapsulated in the recently enacted Budget Control Act of 2011, which demands $2.4 trillion in federal spending cuts. Considering that, as a share of the US economy, the government’s support for research and development (R&D) has fallen by nearly two-thirds since the 1960s, I have little doubt that R&D will bear more than its share of these latest cuts."

Lawmakers are now wrangling over what funding to slash from the federal budget. As they do, PolitiFact New Jersey checked Holt’s statistic on federal support for research and development.

The rocket scientist is right.

Holt’s staff sent us a chart from a 2007 Congressional Budget Office report that illustrated spending on research and development in the United States as a percentage of gross domestic product, or GDP.

GDP is the value of all goods and services produced within the country; basically, it’s a measure of the nation’s economy.

As a percentage of GDP, federal expenditures for research and development peaked in 1964 at 1.92 percent, according to data from the National Science Foundation. In 2008, the most recent data available on expenditures, the percentage stood at .73 percent. That’s a decrease of 62 percent, or nearly two-thirds.

So, Holt is correct.

But it’s worth noting that overall spending -- including funding from government, industry, universities and nonprofit entities -- on research and development  during that time frame did not see such a significant drop. In 1964, overall funding, as a percent of GDP, was at 2.88 percent. In 2008, it was 2.79 percent, a decrease of 3 percent.

Statistics from the National Science Foundation show the federal government funds 57 percent of basic research. Business, however, foots the bill for the majority of applied research, at nearly 61 percent, and development, at 84 percent, according to 2008 data.  

What do those statistics mean? We reached out to several experts to find out.

The loss of federal support has been cushioned by industry funding, according to Patrick Clemins, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s R&D Budget and Policy Program.

But, he said, "industry invests in late stage research, things that they can turn a profit on in a relatively short time frame," which results in "less big ideas, but less risk as well."

Debbie Hart, president of BioNJ, said while industry is looking for both innovation and profit, they are "furthering their best shots on goal."

With industry looking to fund projects near the finish line and government support as a percent of the economy dwindling, Hart poses two questions: "What are we missing? What are the missed opportunities?"

If the decline in federal support for research and development continues, Michael J. Pazzani, vice president for research and economic development at Rutgers University, said we’ll see, "fewer people pursuing careers in academic research, fewer discoveries."

Our ruling

Congressman Holt claimed that as a potion of the nation’s economy, government support for research and development has "fallen by nearly two-thirds since the 1960s."

Data on federal expenditures from the National Science Foundation show that as a percentage of the gross domestic product, spending has dropped by 62 percent since 1964.

We rate his statement True.

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