The Perils of Complacency

America at a Tipping Point

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New Models for U.S. Science and Technology Policy

America’s total national investment in research and development as a fraction of GDP has remained stagnant at 2.4–2.7 percent for nearly half a century (Figure 2).10 Meanwhile, other nations, especially China, have accelerated such investments. Because of America’s tepid response to rising competition from abroad, the United States has fallen to tenth place among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations in investment in R&D (public and private) as a fraction of GDP.11

Figure 2: National R&D Investment as a Percentage of GDP
Figure 2

Source: OECD, “Main Science and Technology Indicators,” 2019, OECD Science, Technology and R&D Statistics (database).

While national R&D spending as a fraction of GDP is but one metric of developed economies that are largely driven by advances in science and technology, the ratio is a strong indicator of the intensity of a nation’s investment in its future. The rapid drop in global ranking of the United States in R&D as a fraction of GDP reflects government policy-makers, corporate boards, and CEOs focusing on near-term issues at the expense of longer-term, potentially existential issues. That is perhaps to be expected, given the short-term incentives that drive politics and business today, but it does not bode well for the future of a country in a world where others, particularly China, are committed to, and investing in, long-term strategies for success – if not outright dominance.


  • 10Historical Trends in Federal R&D,” American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • 11Because of past variations in its definition of R&D, Switzerland has not been included in the figure. Were it to be included, the United States would be in 11th place.