New National Academies Report Warns Congress “Decisive Action Needed Now” to Preserve US Competitive Edge

This by now has been covered all over the place, but I’d be remiss not to add it here, too. The National Academies convened a 20-member panel last summer at the request of Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Bart Gordon (D-TN) to determine the “top 10 actions, in priority order, that federal policymakers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so the United States can successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community of the twenty-first century.” The task was fast-tracked, and an august panel was put together, chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine and including folks like Intel Chairman Craig Barrett, President of Texas A&M Robert Gates, CEO of DuPont Charles Holliday, Jr., former Director of Defense Research and Engineering at DOD (and computer scientist) Anita Jones, and MIT president emeritus Chuck Vest. The committee met once, held focus groups on the five issue areas they decided merited attention (K-12 education, higher education, research, innovation and workforce issues, and national and homeland security), then put together the report they released on Wednesday, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.
The committee actually came up with four major recommendations, supplemented with 20 specific actions to be taken. Hard to quibble with the broad recommendations:
Recommendation A: Increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education.

  • Recruit ten thousand teachers, educate ten million minds — a program that would award competitive 4-year scholarships for students to obtain bachelor’s degrees in the physical or life sciences, engineering or mathematics with concurrent certification as K-12 math and science teachers.
  • Strengthen two hundred fifty thousand teachers’ skills, inspire students every day — provide summer institutes, science and mathematics master’s programs, advanced placement training, and a curriculum modeled on world-class standards for current K-12 teachers.
  • Enlarge the pipeline by creating opportunities and incentives for middle-school and high-school students to pursue advanced work in science and math.

Recommendation B: Sustain and strengthen the nation’s traditional commitment to the long-term basic research that has the potential to be transformational to maintain the flow of new ideas that fuel the economy, provide security, and enhance the quality of life.

  • Increase the federal investment in long-term basic research by 10 percent annually over the next 7 years, with special attention paid to the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and information sciences and to DOD basic-research funding.
  • Provide new research grants of $500,000 each annually, payable over 5 years, to 2000 of our most outstanding early career researchers.
  • Institute a National Coordination Office for Research Infrastructure to manage a centralized research-infrastructure fund of $500 million per year over the next 5 years.
  • Allocate at least 8 percent of the budgets of federal research agencies to high-risk, high payoff research.
  • Create in DOE an organziation like DARPA [hopefully in the model of “old” DARPA – ed] called ARPA-E which would be charged with R&D to meet the nation’s long-term energy challenges.
  • Institute a Presidential Innovation Award to stimulate scientific and engineering advances in the national interest.

Recommendation C: Make the US the most attractive setting in which to study, perform research, and commercialize technologic innovation so that we can develop, recruit, and retain the best and brightest students, scientists and engineers from within the US and throughout the world.

  • Provide 25,000 new 4-year undergraduate scholarships each year to US citizens attending US institutions.
  • Increase the number of US citizens pursuing graduate study “in areas of national need” by funding 5,000 new graduate fellowships each year.
  • Provide a federal tax credit to encourage employers to make continuing education available to practicing scientists and engineers.
  • Continue to improve visa processing for international students.
  • Provide a 1-year automatic visa extension to international students who receive doctorates or equivalent in STEM or other areas of national need at US institutions to remain in the US to seek employment.
  • Institute a new skills-based, preferential immigration option.
  • Reform the current system of “deemed exports”.

Recommendation D: Ensure that the US is the premier place in the world to innovate, invest in downstream activities, and create high-paying jobs that are based on innovation by modernizing the patent system, realigning tax policies to encourage innovation, and ensuring affordable broadband access.

  • “Enhance” intellectual-property protection for the 21st century global economy.
  • Enact a stronger R&D tax credit to encourage private investment in innovation.
  • Provide tax incentives for US-based innovation.
  • Ensure ubiquitous broadband Internet access.

Hard to find fault in much of that — though I’m leeriest of the IP-related “enhancements” (see the report for the details about each of the action items listed). The committee came up with a “back of the envelope” calculation of about $10 billion annually to fully implement the recommendations (the R&D tax credit recommendation is actually the costliest). While that number might seem impossibly high to achieve under the current political mindset for science funding — after all, NSF suffered a 2 percent cut in the last budget and the smart money is betting something similar for FY 06 when appropriations finally wrap up — in the grand scheme of things, $10 billion on top of an $840 billion discretionary budget is a relatively small investment for the potential benefit. If the President is looking for an initiative that would enhance his legacy, I think he’d be hard-pressed to find one with a better cost/benefit ratio.
Anyway, as I said, the report has gathered a reasonable amount of attention in the press. The New York Times has coverage, as does the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required). There are a couple of follow-up hearings planned, including one by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on October 18th, and the House Science Committee on October 20th.
We’ll try and have all the details here.
(Thanks to Sam Liles and Spaf for the pointers!)

New National Academies Report Warns Congress “Decisive Action Needed Now” to Preserve US Competitive Edge