As reported in FYIs #155 through #157, a new National Academies report raises concerns about America's future global competitiveness. "This nation must prepare with great urgency to preserve its strategic and economic security," says the report, entitled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future." The report's recommendations in the areas of K-12 and higher education, research funding, and tax and regulatory policy were outlined in FYI #157.
Norman Augustine, the retired Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation, served as the Chairman of the National Academies committee that prepared the report. Accompanied by Academy officials and other committee members, he presented the committee's views and recommendations at the October 12 release of the report and at two subsequent hearings, by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on October 18, and by the House Science Committee on October 20.
It was the unanimous opinion of the committee, Augustine said, that America is "facing a very major challenge" and is "very likely on a losing path" today. New technologies and the growing competitiveness of other countries have led to a situation in which more and more Americans must compete for their jobs with workers from around the world. While the committee applauded the increasing prosperity of other nations, Augustine warned that the global competition will result in winners and losers, and the committee's goal was to "be sure that America is among the winners."
According to Augustine, the committee identified high-quality jobs as the source of individual prosperity, and tax revenues from such jobs as the source of collective prosperity for all Americans. After reviewing the issues, he said, the committee decided to focus specifically on jobs and investments in science and engineering "as a means to an end," because those fields have a significant "multiplier" effect on other areas of the economy.
Maintaining the ability to compete successfully in the 21st century is, "collectively, the most important issue facing the U.S.," testified William Wulf, President of the National Academy of Engineering. Speaking to the House Science Committee, he referred to America's declining competitiveness as a "creeping crisis" in which, like tiles in a mosaic, the pattern is difficult to see close up but becomes apparent at a distance. While America appears to be prospering today, Augustine added, the trends "seem to be headed in the wrong direction." "I'm terribly concerned...that we're on track to a second-rate economy," declared Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM). He noted that "as of 2007," the U.S. will no longer "have the world's most advanced particle accelerator," as the Large Hadron Collider is expected to come on line at CERN in Switzerland. "Should we be concerned?" he asked. For high-energy physicists, Europe will be "the place to be," Augustine agreed, adding that the U.S. would be "likely to lose our lead for the first time" as researchers moved to Europe.
Of its proposals, the committee identified improving K-12 science and math education as the highest priority, but Augustine stressed that the committee viewed the recommendations "as a package" that should be implemented whole rather than piecemeal. Questioned about the report's recommendations for attracting more U.S. and foreign students to science and engineering fields in American universities, Augustine agreed that to produce more scientists and engineers and not increase R&D funding would be "clearly counterproductive," and would "just create people without jobs." Asked why the committee specifically called for a 10 percent annual increase over seven years for long-term federal basic research, Augustine explained that the committee felt ten percent per year was the most that could be spent efficiently, and the seven-year increase "roughly doubles the existing budget."
Augustine referred to the cost of fully implementing the committee's recommendations as approximately $10 billion a year. Asked whether, given the current budget situation, this was "out of touch," he replied that it would be "out of touch" not to take action, and the U.S. "can't afford not to." Pressed by Science Committee Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) on possible offsets for the costs, Augustine said the committee believed that "the money can be found." "If that's the answer, we're not going to get this done," Gordon warned. Wulf said he had received indications from corporate CEOs that, while "Wall Street would penalize them" for investing company dollars in long-term fundamental research, they would not mind seeing a federal tax to support such research.
Members at both Senate and House hearings inquired about the committee's proposals to create a DARPA-like entity within the Department of Energy and to set aside at least eight percent of federal R&D agency budgets to be used for high-risk research at the discretion of program managers. Augustine replied that in the committee's experience, "innovation occurs best when you're trying to solve a specific problem." Energy, he said, was an important problem that also provided "a good centerpiece" for the effort and would help improve the health of engineering, math, and the physical sciences. Regarding discretionary research funding, National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone said at the Senate hearing that such a discretionary program within the national labs had produced "stunning" results and led to "some of the best work I ever saw."
Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Ranking Member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, questioned whether the proposed National Coordinating Office for Research Infrastructure would be an "invitation" to earmarking. Cicerone responded that without such capability to pay for facilities and infrastructure, earmarking is the universities' only alternative. A coordinating office and a peer-reviewed process, he thought, might "prevent some of the least-productive earmarking."
"You've given us the answers," declared Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) who, along with Bingaman, initiated the National Academies' effort. "Now it's down to us." He reported that the report was already receiving positive comments from his Senate colleagues, and opined that he would like to see the President make it "the subject of his next State of the Union address."
The report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," runs approximately 150 pages plus a lengthy series of appendices. It can be ordered, or read online, at the following web site: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11463.html .