Lots of News Re: The Case for R&D and U.S. Competitiveness
I’m just back from CRA’s Grand Research Challenges in Revitalizing Computer Architecture conference — held in lovely Aptos, California, just up the road from Monterey (and far sunnier than the snowy DC I’ve returned to) — where 50 of the brightest minds in computer architecture research spent 3 days thinking deep thoughts about the field and its biggest challenges for the future. The participants are in the process of finalizing their conclusions, and when they do, you’ll see them here first.
But I only bring this up as a way of explaining the lack of updates during a week that was chock full of good and important developments surrounding the science community’s efforts to make the case for federal support of R&D in the physical sciences, mathematics and computing. So this post is an attempt to rectify that in one fell swoop.
It began on Tuesday:
National Summit on Competitiveness: Long-time readers may recall that
back in April, as part of the emergency supplemental appropriation to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan, House Science, Commerce, Justice, State Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) (with help from Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Vern Ehlers (R-MI)) included language directing the Department of Commerce to convene a meeting of U.S. manufacturers to discuss what could be done to buttress U.S. competitiveness in the global economy. Wolf, who has become one of the strongest champions in Congress for federal support of fundamental research, felt the conference was necessary to expose the Administration to industry concerns about the impact of the federal government’s long-term underinvestment in the physical sciences.
The summit was held Tuesday (December 6, 2005) and attracted over 50 CEOs (pdf), university presidents, and agency directors, as well as four members of the President’s cabinet — Sec. Samuel Bodman (Energy), Sec. Margaret Spellings (Education), Sec. Carlos Gutierrez (Commerce) and Sec. Elaine Chao (Labor).
The good news is that the CEOs made “support for fundamental research” the primary message they brought to the cabinet officials — a very important change of emphasis for most CEO advocacy efforts, which tend to focus on tax law changes or regulatory relief as their prime agenda items. The “Statement of the National Summit of Competitiveness” (pdf), released by the conferees immediately following the summit, puts the message bluntly:
The National Summit on Competitiveness has one fundamental and urgent message: if trends in U.S. research and education continue, our nation will squander its economic leadership, and the result will be a lower standard of living for the American people.
The participants focused on six specific recommendations:
- Increase the federal investment in long-term basic research by 10 percent a year over the next seven years, with focused attention to the physical sciences, engineering and mathematics.
- Allocate at least 8 percent of the budgets of federal research agencies to discretionary funding focused on catalyzing high-risk, high-payoff research.
- By 2015, double the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually to U.S. students in science, math, and engineering, and increase the number of those students who become K-12 science and math teachers.
- Reform U.S. immigration policies to enable the education and employment of individuals from around the world with the knowledge and skills in science, engineering, technology and mathematics necessary to boost the competitive advantage of the U.S.
- Provide incentives for the creation of public-private partnerships to encourage U.S. students at all levels to pursue studies and/or careers in science, math, technology and engineering.
- Provide focused and sustained funding to address national technology challenges in areas that will ensure national security and continued U.S. economic leadership, including nanotechnology, high-performance computing, and energy technologies.
These are recommendations well-grounded in recent reports of the National Academies, the Council on Competitiveness, the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, the Business Round Table, and many others (pdf). Whether the recommendations will resonate within the Administration remains to be seen. Until recently, the Administration has adopted a rather head-in-the-sand approach regarding the state of federal support for fundamental research. Members of the Administration continue to note that federal support for R&D has risen 45 percent since 2001, while failing to recognize that the great bulk (pdf) of that increase has been in shorter-term, defense-related development work. Long-term, basic research in the physical sciences, mathematics and computing has been flat or declining over the same period. But the persistent pressure from industry (industry has really stepped up it’s involvement in this advocacy this year, as this conference demonstrated) may be having some effect. Members of the Administration (beyond the usual suspects at OSTP) are beginning to allow a level of dialog with the community that wasn’t happening six months ago. (That’s intentionally cryptic.) There’s no guarantee that it will result in anything, but it’s an encouraging development.
Also encouraging is the imminent introduction of two separate, but very similar, bills designed to push forward an “innovation agenda” that both include substantial authorizations for increased funding for fundamental research in the physical sciences:
Ensign/Lieberman National Innovation Act of 2005: Planned for introduction on December 15th, this bill, co-introduced by Sens. John Ensign (R-NV) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), would enact most of the recommendations of the Council on Competitiveness’ National Innovation Initiative (which we’ve detailed here). The bill is a pretty massive effort that includes another authorization for “doubling” NSF by 2011; establishes “Innovation Acceleration Grants”, which encourage federal research agencies to allocate 3% of their R&D budgets to grants directed toward “high-risk frontier research”; makes permanent the R&E tax credit; increases NSF graduate research fellowship funding; authorizes a DOD competitive traineeship program for undergrad and grad students in defense science and engineering; and authorizes new “Professional Science Master’s Degree Programs” to increase the number of qualified scientists and engineers entering the workforce. The bill is actually more of an omnibus — it contains provisions that will likely result in referrals to six or seven different Senate committees — which works against it getting passed in its current form. But it’s an important placeholder for these issues in Congress and its likely that each of its provisions could find their way into bills that do move. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) plans to introduce a similar measure in the House.
Alexander/Bingaman Innovation Bill: Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) plan to introduce a bill soon that would enact most of the recommendations of the recent National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. We’ve previously covered the recommendations from that report. Alexander and former Commerce Secretary (and still close friend of the President) Don Evans recently took to the airways to talk up the report and Alexander’s legislation, with Alexander telling CNBC that he was calling on the President to focus on this innovation issue in his State of the Union address in January — which would represent a remarkable elevation of the issue. You can download the clip (about 13 megs, asf format) here.
Finally, there’s been lots of good recent press on the issue. Here’s some quick and dirty summaries:
In the five decades since I began working in the aerospace industry, I have never seen American business and academic leaders as concerned about this nation’s future prosperity as they are today.
On the surface, these concerns may seem unwarranted. Two million jobs were created in the United States in the past year. Citizens of other nations continue to invest their savings in this country at a remarkable rate. Our nation still has the strongest scientific and technological enterprise — and the best research universities — in the world.
But deeper trends in this country and abroad are signs of a gathering storm. After the Cold War, nearly 3 billion potential new capitalists entered the job market. A substantial portion of our workforce now finds itself in direct competition for jobs with highly motivated and often well-educated people from around the world. Workers in virtually every economic sector now face competitors who live just a mouse click away in Ireland, Finland, India, China, Australia and dozens of other nations.
In the face of report after report indicating that the United States is at grave risk of losing its technological edge which in turn is the basis of the high U.S. standard of living the Bush administration and the GOP Congress so far have been (to be charitable) behind the curve on science and technology.
Last year, Congress actually cut the budget of the National Science Foundation, and Bushs 2006 budget called for less funding than the agency had in 2004. Wolf won a small increase, but still not enough to match 2004.
The Department of Energys Office of Science, the primary funder of physics research, got just a 2.9 percent increase in fiscal 2005 and 0.9 percent this year a cut after inflation.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the incubator of, among other things, the Internet and laser technology, got a 5 percent increase in fiscal 2005. The House approved 4.2 percent for fiscal 2006, while the Senate called for a 1.8 percent cut.
At the innovation summit on Tuesday, Deputy Commerce Secretary David Sampson repeated the familiar administration line that research and development funding has increased 45 percent since 2001 and represents 13.6 percent of the federal discretionary budget.
Sampson also asserted that the U.S. economic growth rate, 4.3 percent, is the fastest in the world, that all of President Bushs policies tax, research and development, education and workforce development are dedicated to making America more competitive.
In fact, the U.S. growth rate trails that of China (9.4 percent), Hong Kong (8.2 percent) and India (8 percent), and all the evidence indicates that those countries are far outstripping the United States in the training of scientists and investment in research and development.
Bush deserves credit for aggressively responding to the No. 1 threat to Americas well-being terrorism. He needs to do better in responding to the No. 2 threat, foreign economic competition.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes grow weary hearing big-picture thinkers tell us we need more mathematicians and scientists. Maybe it was because I wasn’t very interested in those subjects as a kid. Whatever, all the talk about math and science can leave my politics-and-history mind blank.
Several students in Allen said the same thing the other day. When I asked a classroom of high schoolers how many wanted to study math and science in college, one student shot up his hand and said we shouldn’t forget the “bohemian” side of the brain, meaning the side that worries about things like war and peace. A number of his fellow students nodded.
I like their independence, but here’s the plain truth that people like me need to remember: We either champion math and science, or we lose our footing in the world. That’s hard to imagine since we’re the Big Cat economically, militarily and politically.
But if our schools downplay math and science, Americans will become the 7-foot basketball player who stumbled over his own clumsy feet running down the court. While we’re trying to get back up, little fast guys will run right by.
Tech luminaries, academics, researchers and business leaders have been sounding alarm bells about America’s eroding competitiveness in science and technology for more than a year.
In study after study, groups such as the Council on Competitiveness, the National Academies, TechNet and AeA explained the problems in clear and stark terms. The rise of tech powerhouses in China, India and elsewhere, and the parallel decline at home in math and science education, in research and development investments, and in broadband infrastructure, have put America’s economic leadership and prosperity at risk. These groups also provided sensible, detailed and often strikingly similar solutions to ensure America remains No. 1.
In Washington, however, it all seemed to fall on deaf ears. Until now.
Both Democrats and Republicans need to stand for something positive going into next year’s election, something that addresses the growing fear of middle-class voters that their children won’t enjoy the same opportunities that they’ve had. Unless Congress adopts legislation to restore America’s competitive edge, those fears will be warranted.
Anyway, as this has already turned into the mother of all blog posts, I’ll stop there. But I close with the opinion that there’s some reason to be reasonably optimistic about the federal priority for fundamental research changing for the better. The pressure is mounting from numerous fronts: industry is now heavily invested in making the case, significant efforts in Congress are underway, the press has cottoned on to the message, and, as I’ll detail in a future post, public attitudes about federal support for research are very positive. All that’s really left is for the President to make this a national priority.
Let’s hope that he does….