U.S. President Barack Obama promised a major investment in scientific research on Monday, saying his country has fallen behind in recent years.

"I believe it is not in our character, American character, to follow — but to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again," Obama said in a speech at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

"I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than three per cent of our GDP to research and development," he said.

"We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science."

Obama said investment in both basic science and applied research a half-century earlier fuelled the country's success, and said the government's new commitment "will fuel our success for another 50 years."

These investments will lead to new innovations such as solar cells as cheap as paint, buildings that produce all the energy they consume and prosthetics advanced enough to allow a person to play the piano again, he said.

In addition to the investment commitment, Obama said his government would fund a new agency called Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E, which will seek to do "high-risk, high-reward research" in energy. The agency would be based on the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, which was established during the Eisenhower administration.

He also said he would take measures to restore science "to its rightful place" in the United States, including the establishment of a council of advisers on science and technology policy. The council will be co-chaired by national science adviser John Holdren, Eric Lander, one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project; and Harold Varmus, former head of the National Institutes of Health.

"I want to be sure that facts are driving scientific decisions — and not the other way around," he said.

Obama said science cannot answer every question and cannot replace ethics, values or faith, but it can inform these things and help put them to work, "to feed a child, to heal the sick, to be good stewards of this Earth."