John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, says the country faces a similar technological challenge to the "Sputnik moment" it experienced half a century ago when the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite to the surprise of most Americans.
This time the adversary is China, which is investing heavily in scientific research and development, Holdren told The Independent newspaper in Britain Sunday.
"Everybody is looking at China and saying, if we don't lift our game, China is going to eat our lunch economically because the amount they are investing in science, technology and innovation, while it has not yet reached anything like our level, is rising very quickly," he said.
China is doing "extraordinary things" in terms of science and innovation and investing in major university research facilities, Holdren said.
"So people are looking in there and saying, 'You know, it's not automatic that the United States will be number one in science, technology and innovation.'
"This is something that has to be cultivated, it has to be invested in, and the president has been very clear that he wants to see us having innovation, education and out-build the competition," Holdren said.
"He does not want to preside over the United States sliding into an inferior position," he said.