US Moving From Technology Leader To Laggard

R&D, science, and technology investments aren't keeping pace with other nations -- and face growing risks from cybertheft, according to government reports.

Many people around the world marvel at the science and technology wizardry of the United States. It seems it has been that way for years. The nation’s prosperity and security has become so heavily reliant on advances in science and technology that some say it has become the single most essential component of our economy.

The US still spends more than every other country on science and technology research and development. At last count there are 20 science and technology agencies with the US federal government alone, as well as the hundreds of private sector organizations, actively engaged in science and technology research. All this has placed the US at the top of the list when it comes to research and development spending. So why then why is the US losing ground?

Clearly one reason is the surge in investments elsewhere. In March 2011, the BBC reported that the US would fall from the No. 1 country for scientific output -- and be overtaken by China -- by the end of this year. This was not the first warning of this development. The BBC in December 2006 similarly reported that China had surpassed Japan to become the world's No. 2 and that China is closing in on the amount of R&D spending in the United States.

Last month, an unclassified US Intelligence Community report, released by the US Intelligence Community, concluded the "U.S. technological superiority is diminishing in important areas." This telling report is a must read for anyone involved with or interested in national security and intelligence or in the defense intelligence industry. A US Army study is said to have determined that some of our adversaries might already have the edge over the US in cyberwarfare as well as other concerning areas.

What is not included in the report are concerns raised in a global R&D forecast by the non-profit research organization, Battelle, which noted "R&D sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense will see one of the biggest declines (down $2.5 billion to $75 billion forecast for 2012) for the third consecutive year."

[R&D investments are also facing greater risk of cybertheft. Read: Stealing America’s Future.]

It would be unfair to say this is the cause of the US decline in strategic military and intelligence capabilities. The answer is far more complex. First of all we need to look at education. The availability of an appropriate level of properly skilled people in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is critical -- and by all accounts the US is falling short. It makes little sense to increase funding in research and development of new technology when we do not have properly skilled individuals to staff it; and given the criticality we certainly do not want to outsource this.

Published reports show the US ratings in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are slipping. Despite President Barack Obama’s insistence, in 2010, that "Leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today -- especially in science, technology, engineering and math," where is nation’s investment in STEM teachers, curriculum, and facilities?

Now consider that the research and development efforts that we are funding and have the resources to staff are constantly under the threat of espionage, particularly cyber espionage. Historically espionage activities were focused on collecting political and military intelligence. That has certainly changed!

Today, cyberspies steal entire sets of blueprints for sensitive systems for commercial gains as well as military and intelligence reasons. The theft of US intellectual property has been reported at levels within the government and private sectors that seem unbelievable. One report estimates that IP theft is costing the US an estimated $300 billion a year. A 2012 report found that the output of intellectual property intensive industries is responsible for at least 40 million jobs and deliver more than 34% of the US gross domestic product (GDP). These two areas are critical and must be addressed if the US is to regain our status as a technological innovator.

Technology has permeated virtually every aspect of our lives. Stop and think for a moment just how influential technology has become in the way we live, socialize, and work as well as our nation’s security. We are now aware that the investment in science and technology research and development by other countries is outpacing that of the US.

It would be a sure bet that this foreign science and technology investment is not limited to just defense and intelligence technologies. In addition, several areas of technology identified in the report have applications outside of intelligence and their value cuts across many industry segments.

Kevin Coleman was the chief strategist at Netscape and works now as a subject matter expert and adviser on strategic technology issues and opportunities. He writes regularly on emerging challenges associated with technology, including cyberwarfare, cyber intelligence, and cyber diplomacy.

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