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Taking a Look at the National Patterns

September 1997

Investment in research and development (R&D) in the United States continued to increase in 1995 and 1996, "but it's not keeping up with growth in Gross Domestic Product," says NSF economist Steven Payson. The comparison is a way of keeping track of R&D's proportional involvement in the economy, he explains.

Payson and his coauthor, John E. Jankowski, Jr., Program Director in the Division of Science Resources Studies (SRS), wrote the most recent edition of NSF's biennial report, National Patterns of R&D Resources: 1996. "While many of the SRS surveys are looking at one aspect of R&D, National Patterns reports the state of R&D in the whole country," says Payson.

The report is made up of preliminary 1996 data, as well as the findings of many separate SRS surveys completed over the year. In addition to taking a nationwide approach, the report addresses R&D in individual states, status by sector, the type of R&D work being performed (basic research, applied research or development), and employment numbers for R&D scientists and engineers.

National Patterns is used by federal agencies that track national spending trends, and groups that fund R&D. In addition, Payson says, the overall framework of the report is being used by other countries to track their own trends in R&D.

Some of the preliminary estimates in National Patterns follow. All percentages are given in "real terms"--that is, they have been adjusted for inflation.

  • R&D expenditures reached $184.3 billion in 1996, which, when adjusted for inflation, is a 1.0% increase over 1995 expenditures. At the same time, GDP rose 2.7%.

  • Industry spent a total of $113.5 billion on R&D in 1996, a 3.5% increase over 1995. Federal expenditures reached just $61.9 billion, a 3.0% decline since 1995.

  • Growth in R&D expenditures has been slow since the early 1980s. From 1980 to 1985, R&D spending increased at approximately 6.6% a year. Since then, the growth has averaged only 1.4% a year.

  • The United States spent $29.8 billion on basic research (16% of the total), $38.8 billion on applied research (21% of total), and $115.8 billion on development (63% of total).

While the drop to $29.8 billion is a decrease in real spending from 1995 to 1996, it is very slight, says Payson. "It was less than one percent" However, he adds, the federal government's share of basic research dollars has decreased significantly. In 1980, the federal government funded 70% of basic research. In 1996, its estimated share of support dropped to 58%.

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