Total R&D in the United States has been about 2.5% of GDP since 1960.

Updated: Apr 6, 2019

A lot has changed about the way science gets done in the United States since 1960, but one of the key bottom-line indicators has not: the sum total of research and development (R&D) expenditures in the US has been remarkably steady, around 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP), for 58 years.

It is not at all obvious or inevitable that this would be the case. Decisions about R&D spending are made by a huge range of stakeholders in Congress, the White House, and the leaders of at least a dozen federal agencies and departments, hundreds of universities, and thousands of companies.

What’s even more remarkable is that there have been major changes to the conduct and sponsors of R&D since 1960, within that surprisingly steady total. The highest levels of R&D spending ever seen in the US were reached in fiscal year 1964 and were driven overwhelmingly by a post-Sputnik, get-to-the-moon surge in federal research budgets. Federal spending on R&D peaked that year near 2% of GDP.

Since then, a steady decline in federal funding for R&D has been almost exactly offset by increases in private-sector funding, which is currently at its highest levels in history.

Is this a good thing? Can private-sector R&D deliver the kinds of revolutionary technological advances the Manhattan Project, Apollo Program, and ARPANET did? Does private-sector R&D spur faster economic growth and job creation? Explore these questions and more in Jump-Starting America, a new book from Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson, on April 9th, 2019!

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