Commentary: Declines in Basic Research Threaten U.S. Leadership

somyot pattana/

China is now the second largest investor in R&D.

Investment in fundamental science and discovery is integral to U.S. economic growth and development as well as to national security. The innovation engendered by such investment has enabled the U.S. to maintain an intelligence and national security advantage over our adversaries and has played a pivotal role in advancing our nation’s capabilities.  

This relationship between scientific investment and national security has long been recognized. In 1945, American engineer, inventor, and science administrator Vannevar Bush espoused the vital relationship between research and national security in a report to the president entitled “Science: The Endless Frontier.” Half a century later, the Hart-Rudman Commission reinforced the essential role of government in funding basic research. The return on scientific investment is clear when one considers that whole industries have been created from such research, which has resulted in the mass production of steel, aviation, nuclear power, GPS and the Internet.

Governments in many parts of the developing world seem to recognize this. They have taken steps to develop their own science and technology, or S&T, infrastructures; stimulate industrial research and development, or R&D; expand their higher education systems; and build indigenous R&D capabilities. In the last decade, global S&T capabilities have grown -- nowhere more so than in Asia. But over this same period, U.S. investment in basic and applied research has declined. 

While the United States continues to maintain a position of leadership in terms of broad research and development activities, our position is eroding as other nations -- particularly China, now the second largest investor in R&D -- take steps to develop their research infrastructure and invest in fundamental research. 

Decreased emphasis in the United States on fundamental research, particularly in fields likely to enable or enhance national security capabilities, will have long-term negative effects on our nation:

  • Our ability to develop revolutionary capabilities that support intelligence and national security objectives will degrade.
  • We will be more susceptible to technological surprise -- particularly from those nations that are now investing heavily in the sciences.
  • Intelligence and national security agencies and the companies and institutions that support them will find it increasingly difficult to maintain a sufficiently skilled workforce.

As part of a national strategy, government must place greater emphasis on investment in fundamental science and discovery -- basic research. These research areas should be carefully coordinated to maximize the likelihood they will ultimately yield advances in capabilities that will adequately prepare the U.S. to face future adversaries -- both states and non-state actors. 

There are many positive outcomes of a robust basic research portfolio with emphasis on intelligence and national security objectives. To increase the emphasis on science, innovation and discovery, the government should:

  • Continue funding basic research with the objective of developing science that will revolutionize intelligence and national security capabilities.
  • Increase coordination within the nation’s national security research enterprise to maximize the value of research efforts.
  • Develop incentives to encourage industry investment in long-term basic research areas relevant to national security.
  • Increase outreach and engagement with universities.
  • Increase educational outreach to attract and retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics with a focus on intelligence and national security objectives.

Despite fiscal challenges in the years ahead, continued advocacy across government for national security focused R&D is essential, particularly with regard to basic research, in order to maintain and enhance our national security and ensure our technological leadership. 

The Intelligence and National Security Alliance, through its Council on Technology and Innovation, will continue to focus on the challenge of ensuring our nation’s security through discovery and innovation.  Additional information can be found in the recently published INSA paper entitled “Emerging Science and Technologies: Securing the Nation through Discovery and Innovation.”  Copies of the paper may be downloaded at

Joseph R. DeTrani, is president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. He previously was the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center, the North Korea Mission Manager for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Special Envoy for the Six Party Talks with North Korea. 

Allan Sonsteby is an INSA Board Member and INSA Technology and Innovation Council white paper lead. He is currently the Associate Director of the Applied Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University.