It’s about Competitiveness, Stupid…: Competitiveness, Innovation and the State of the Union

Ok, so that’s about the most played-out cliche in politics, but it’s hard to come up with another phrase that encapsulates how pervasive the competitiveness meme has become in science policy circles — and more encouragingly, in the words of administration and congressional policymakers — over the last year.
Also, apologies for going sort of radio silent here the last couple of weeks, but there’s lots going on surrounding this issue and we’re involved in some of it, which makes chatting about it a little dicey. But here’s where things stand.
At the moment, all eyes (ears?) are focused on the President’s State of the Union speech tomorrow night. In that speech, among the new programs and initiatives he’s expected to announce may be a piece on ensuring U.S. competitiveness, which could feature a number of important planks. Now, I have no specific knowledge about what is actually in the speech, but there’s been a bit of press coverage, plenty of rumors floating around town, and a few tea leaves that can be read.
It seems fairly clear that there will be a focus on education, a focus on workforce/immigration, and a focus on “innovation” that could include increased budgets for federal science angencies. One big clue is the Administration’s apparent fondness for the National AcademiesRising Above the Gathering Storm” report put together by former Lockheed-Martin CEO Norman Augustine. There have been several mentions of the report by folks within the Administration. Maybe the most prominent mention was by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card during his January 11th talk at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This exchange is about 47:28 into the webcast:

Question: There’s a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, put together by Norm Augustine, called “The Gathering Storm.” It raises some questions about science and technology leadership in the U.S. going forward. Do you have any thoughts on that, especially as it relates to the economy, one of your key issues?
Card: I would encourage you to read this report, which is The Gathering Storm. It’s about our need to have more engineers and scientists in the United States. It is work that was done in the private sector under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, and Norm Augustine did lead the effort. There were some great academics involved.
I actually read the report, not just the summary, but the report. And it is dramatic in its exposure to that which is a problem in the United States, and how few young people are going into the physical sciences, into math, and how they’re not going to college with an expectation that they’ll be a an engineer, or a mathematician, or a physicist.
The life sciences have actually had a little bump up. There’s some excitement about the life sciences, but on the physical sciences side, there is a dearth of students, and there is a death of teachers, and a dearth of scholarships and opportunities at some our major institutions. This report highlights that. It outlines a road map toward solving the problem. It’s a ten year roadmap.
We are taking a very close look at it in the Administration. We are very forward leaning in believing it is the right issue to address. Many of the suggestions are appropriate suggestions, but we have to put them in the context of Josh Bolton’s budget. And we’ll be doing that.
It is a compelling report.

We’ve covered the Gathering Storm report in this space, and it’s filled with things we like. If the Administration embraces the report in any meaningful way — particularly its core recommendation to “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” — then we’ll be very pleased. After all, this represents a pretty signficant (and welcome) sea change for the Administration, which until recently has maintained, as John Marburger, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said back in March, that “the U.S. is so far ahead in [science and technology] that we are going to be able to maintain our competitive strength. I don’t see the same danger signs [that others do].”
There are other hints that the President may be willing to adopt an “innovation” agenda, including a number of tidbits in the press. Technology Daily reports today (sub. req’d.) that some high-tech officials who have met with White House senior officials in recent days have come away optimistic about the Administrations commitment to innovation. Yesterday’s Boston Globe indicates Norm Augustine will play an important role in the President’s speech. And the Baltimore Sun has two pieces on the likelihood of “innovation” being a featured part of Bush’s remarks. The big question is whether there will be the funding commitment to accompany any rhetorical commitment to innovation by the President.
If the President chooses to truly embrace the recommendations of the Augustine report, his budget will find a way to provide for a significant increase for the National Science Foundation, and perhaps to the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Augustine report specifically recommends an increase of 10 percent a year for the next seven years for “long-term basic research…with special attention paid to the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and information sciences.” This is the approach taken in both the National Innovation Act introduced by Sens. John Ensign (R-NV) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and the new “Protecting America’s Competitive Edge” (PACE) Act, introduced last week by Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).
The strong bipartisan support accorded both bills in the Senate is indicative of the traction the “competiveness and innovation” case has in Congress. A year’s worth of reports — most familiar to readers of this blog — by some of the most influential academic and industrial entities, all making the same essential points that the world has become an increasingly competitive place and that the US isn’t currently doing enough to ensure our future scientific and innovative leadership, has clearly had an impact on Members of Congress — and now, hopefully, the Administration.
But even if the President does include signficant increases for basic research in his budget, there will be a lot of work remaining. As Congress is fond of pointing out, “the President proposes, Congress disposes.” This is, after all, a time of incredibly tight budgets, with lots of pressure in place to hold down increases in discretionary spending. So, step one will be making sure that the Congressional Budget Resolution includes the same support for fundamental research that we hope will be present in the President’s budget. This is turn will aid in getting “302(b) allocations” (essentially, the amounts each of the 10 or 12 (House v Senate) appropriations subcommittees are allowed to spend for the bills under their control) that are robust enough to let the subcommittees that oversee the science agencies provide the any increases called for in the budget. Then it will be up to this same coalition of partners in university and industry to make the case to appropriators. In past years, the lack of a budget “cap” room has prevented even some of the most ardent congressional champions of research from providing significant increases. A strong budget request and good 302(b) allocations would remove that constraint.
So, I’m cautiously optimistic and very eager to hear the President’s words tomorrow night. If the Adminstration comes through with a proposal that embraces the best of the Augustine report recommendations, it is hugely important that they, and Congress, hear from the community in support of the idea. As we’ve noted in the past, the case for bolstering U.S. competitiveness by bolstering U.S. innovation finds strong support in both parties. Supporting the plan need not commit you to supporting any one party.
But let’s see what’s in the plan, first.
The President will deliver the State of the Union at 9 pm, Tuesday, January 31st.
We’ll have more after the speech (or earlier, if we get some scoop…).