Gayblack Canadian Man

Foreign Policy Analysis

Could the U.S. Lose Its Leadership in Science and Technology to China?


In the two decades after World War Two, the
United States almost doubled Federal investment in scientific research and technological development. And it tells the story of a literal moonshot. Here in 1957, the Soviet Union launched into
space Sputnik the first man-made satellite. It marked the start of the space race between
the U.S. and Soviets ushering in the space age. “Today a new moon is in the sky. A 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket. One of the great scientific feats of the age.” After that, Federal funding into science,
technology, and military development went into hyperdrive. A year later, Congress created the
NASA space agency. That same year President Eisenhower established
ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, to develop space technology for military use. Today we know it as DARPA. Funding flowed easily, often through universities,
into all aspects of R&D. And in 1969, it paid off. That year, with the world watching, the Apollo
11 space mission landed the first humans on the moon. “Liftoff! We have a liftoff!” “That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.” Beating the Soviets to the moon was the goal,
to be sure. But the ingenuity and discovery fostered during
this period helped the U.S. achieve economic and military superiority, funding innovations that are at the foundation
of our modern lives. Take your smartphone. What would it be without innovations like
touchscreens, GPS, and the internet? These were all technologies supported by your
taxpayer dollars. Case in point, remember that obscure agency
called ARPA? Well, the same year Neil Armstrong set foot
on the moon, researchers over at ARPA connected a network of four computers. They called it ARPANET. Today, we call it the internet. Yet, federal investment
dropped from its peak of almost 2% to just 7% of GDP. At the same time, private industry investment
in R&D grew dramatically. Eventually reaching a level twice that of
public funding. In fact, as a percent of GDP, the United States
is at one of its lowest levels of public funding since before World War Two. Now you might look at these numbers and say,
“So what? Companies are making the investments instead
of hard-working taxpayers.” And while you’re right, it does pose a problem. Companies investing in new technology is a
good thing. But the nature of public R&D funding is different
than that of private. Public funds can go into early-stage, longer-term,
and often riskier endeavors. Projects that may not pay off anytime soon,
but that could be the next moonshot. This adds up to another big problem when we
look at international competition– especially the rise of China. Over the past two decades, China has increased
its R&D spending more than tenfold In that same period, U.S. spending has remained
flat. What’s worse: China is projected to overtake
the U.S. in total spending by 2029. Just ten short years away. And that’s the problem. In a time of rapid technological change, the
U.S. is on the brink of ceding jobs, profit, and overall economic growth to its largest
competitor. China’s government-led plans to become the world leader in cutting-edge technologies are already paying off. They’re submitting more patent applications,
publishing more scientific papers, and producing more STEM graduates than any other country. That means that Chinese companies could soon
dominate emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing,
synthetic biology, and next generation communication technologies like 5G. That, in turn, would give the Chinese military
a big boost, putting the Pentagon at serious risk of losing its strategic advantage. Think back to the 50s and 60s. What if those moonshots didn’t happen because
the investment wasn’t there? Or worse yet, another country got there first? How much would U.S. competitiveness have suffered? Well, that future may soon be a reality.

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