Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer spoke today at the House Democratic Caucus Retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, and urged the Members present to support investments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and increase federal support for basic research. The STEM ed investments are really the government’s investments in human capital, he said, which are necessary because in “today’s knowledge-driven world, innovation will depend on people who are actually technologically sophisticated, have strong critical thinking skills, and have expertise in math and science and engineering.”
He also called for greater investment in the nation’s science and technology infrastructure — in the basic research that powers innovation.
I came in, flew in red eye, was a little groggy this morning when I got here. I sat down with the speaker at 8:00 AM, and she woke me right up. She said there are four things I want you to make sure you understand are a priority: science, science, science, and science. I was awake by the end of the fourth science for sure, and I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly.
Science and technology is the backbone for productivity and innovation; has been, not always information technology, but science and technology has been a driver of economic success. Government investment in science and engineering as a percentage of GDP is half, in this country, what it was in 1970, and it would be growing rapidly, particularly in countries in Asia, off a small base albeit, but in places like India and China and Korea the trend is the other direction.
We need to pursue breakthroughs over the coming years in green technology, alternative energy, bioengineering, parallel computing, quantum computing. Without greater government investment in the basic research, there is a danger that important advances will happen in other countries. This is truly I think not only an issue of competitiveness, but also in a sense of national security. Companies like ours and others can do our fair share in terms of funding of basic research, but government needs to take the lead.
The whole speech is worth reading. It’s great. I only wish that it could have been heard by members of the Senate who are still debating whether science funding — including a $1.4 billion increase for NSF — ought to be included in the Senate version of the stimulus package.
Basic research is the most powerful engine for innovation in the U.S. economy. Allowing it fall out of a stimulus bill designed to jumpstart our short and long-term economic recovery is just shortsightedness of the worst kind.
Update: (2/7/09) — Maybe the Senate was listening.