Where Does Obama Get His R&D Stats?

Speaking to the Business Roundtable on February 24, Obama said:

To spur the discovery of services and products and industries we have yet to imagine, we’re devoting more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development -– an amount that exceeds the level achieved at the height of the space race

 Who the heck is feeding the President his numbers? If anything, when the data for  2009 and 2010 national R&D finally come out, these figures  may turn out to be the worst in years.

The last published number on national R&D spending from NSF puts government, business, and academic spending on R&D at roughly 2.8% of GDP, less than the 2.9% in 1964.  

We know that government spending on R&D went up between 2008 and 2010, but the gain was less than a tenth of a percentage point of GDP. 

The real problem is that corporate and academic spending on U.S. R&D is almost certainly falling.  How fast? We don’t know.  But the combination of pharma mergers, auto company cutbacks, and the movement of  R&D facilities overseas suggests a sharp cutback in U.S. R&D spending.

In fact, the number of engineers and scientists employed in the U.S. contracted by 5.0%  in 2009, a much bigger decline than the 3.8% drop for the U.S. workforce as a whole.

Obama was sounding complacent, when he should have been sounding the alarm.


  1. I don’t understand your point. Obama’s statement is about planned future investment. You are talking about past and present.

    Aside from that, will the investment be effective? To paraphrase, “write the check and they will come”. It all depends to whom you write the check and for what. One problem will be to arrange a mechanism to get the actual underused sci/tech experience back into work – the middle aged that the current system has ejected. Otherwise we will get another round of “we cannot find local talent”.

    • CompEng says:

      I don’t think Obama can politically risk sounding an alarm when he can’t possibly put money behind it.

      • I was merely pointing out that I see no contradiction between Obama’s quoted statement and the (BTW quite plausible) fall in (domestic) R&D expenditure over the past years, as they don’t relate to the same time frame. Am I missing something?

        My second paragraph was of course hypothetical and perhaps more inspired by an impulse to rant than anything else.

  2. Mike Mandel says:

    If it’s about the future, the statement still doesn’t make any sense. Is it a forecast or a promise? The government is only responsible for about 1 percentage point of R&D spending, and Obama’s budget doesn’t significantly increase that (the FY2011 budget calls for spending just under 1% of GDP on R&D).

    No, there’s just something really funky about that number.

    • Maybe I’m missing something. I was under the impression that you were constructing a contradiction between your past observations and Obama’s forward looking comparisons of future spending to the space program (whether realistic or not). I was merely pointing out that there cannot be a contradiction as you are both talking about different things. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs.

  3. Or is he including some tax ‘expenditures’ and their anticipated effect, but it still seems overly optimistic.

  4. The link between R&D spending and R&D employment is incorrect. Firstly, R&D workforce typically is more expensive than the nation average. It has more room for cutbacks during hard economic times. Secondly, workforce expenses is only a small and dwindling part of R&D expenses. Equipment and special facilities eclipse the costs of employees. And the trend seems to be worsening.

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