Recent Developments: Task Force on American Innovation Calls for Robust Support of Basic Research and STEM Education; UK Budget Plan Maintains Science Funding

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Publication date: 
26 October 2010

In  an October 13 letter to the co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal  Responsibility and Reform, members of the Task Force on American Innovation   urged that “our government must provide robust support for basic research,  particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, and for STEM (science,  technology, engineering, mathematics) education.”  Among the 42 members of the Task Force are  the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society.

In  a parallel development, the Government in the United Kingdom last week announced  its intention to maintain science funding at current levels for the next four  years.

The  National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform  was  established by President Obama in February.   It is co-chaired by a Democrat, Erskine Bowles, Chief of Staff to  President Clinton, and Alan Simpson, former Republican Senator from Wyoming.  The Commission, which is advisory only, has  18 members.  Fourteen of these members  must approve a report by December 1 that will be sent to the President.  The Commission’s Charter outlines its duties as  follows:

“The  Commission shall propose recommendations to balance the budget, excluding  interest payment on the debt, by 2015. This result is projected to stabilize  the debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level once the economy recovers. In  addition, the Commission shall propose recommendations to the President that  meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address  the growth of entitlement spending and the gap between the projected revenues  and expenditures of the Federal Government.”

There  are three working groups within the Commission: a Mandatory Working Group (for  programs such as Social Security), a Tax Reform Working Group, and a  Discretionary Working Group.  Science  spending is discretionary.  The  discussion leaders for this nine member working group are Rep. John Spratt, Jr.  (D-SC) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). 

The  October 13 letter follows:

“Dear  Chairmen Bowles and Simpson:

“Among  economists, policymakers, and the public, there is little dispute that the  fiscal path our nation is following is unsustainable. As representatives of high-tech  and other industries, universities, and professional societies, we concur, and  we therefore believe it is imperative that our government adopt policies to  reduce the budget deficit and stabilize our national debt.

“As  you consider recommendations for Congress and the Administration, however, we  urge you to recognize the importance of keeping our nation on an innovation  path that makes it possible for our economy to grow and our citizens to  prosper. Ultimately, the point of fiscal responsibility is to provide a better  life for all Americans, especially future generations. And while reducing  deficits is necessary for achieving long-term prosperity, it is equally  necessary that we continue to make the new investments in science and  technology that for more than half a century have provided the foundation for  innovation and economic growth in our country.

“We  agree with the leadership of the Commission that all parts of the federal  budget must be placed on the table for deficit reduction: entitlement spending,  tax and revenue policies, and discretionary spending, both defense and nondefense.  However, as the Commission examines its options on the spending side, we urge  you to differentiate investments that over time will grow the economy, create  jobs, and increase federal revenues from programs that may be desirable but  provide little if any financial return. When our fiscal house is in order, we  should be able to     afford  both. But it isn’t, and we can’t.

“Members  of the Task Force on American Innovation believe that our government, even as  it takes necessary steps to reduce deficits, must continue to make investments  that will strengthen our economic competitiveness by spurring scientific  advancement and improving the quality of our technological workforce.  Specifically, our government must provide robust support for basic research,  particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, and for STEM (science,  technology, engineering, mathematics) education. Revenue policies should also encourage  private investment in research and innovation.

“Economic  analyses generally attribute more than half of all economic growth in the  United States since the end of World War II to technological advances that have  driven innovation and productivity. Those advances - such as the laser; the  Internet and its companion, the Web; and the large-scale integrated circuit -  all had their origins in long-term research, both basic and applied. They were  the consequence of federal policies that directly funded long-term research,  provided incentives for private investment, and stressed the importance of  science and     engineering  education.

“For  more than half a century the United States led the world in scientific  discovery and technological innovation. Our nation’s prowess produced  extraordinary economic growth and increased the standard of living of most Americans.  Today, a good part of the world has caught up with our scientific competence,  and in some cases surpassed it. In the case of K-12 science and mathematics  education, we are distinctly second rate. If we do not remedy our deficiencies  in the coming decade we run the risk of relegating our nation’s economy to the  same     status.  Indeed, nations such as China and India are pouring resources into developing  their research capacities and their human capital in STEM fields, helping them  over the long term to challenge our economic as well as our military  leadership.

“We  are well aware that you face an enormous challenge. And Congress and the  President will face an enormous challenge as they consider your  recommendations. We urge you to make recommendations that, over the long run,  will enable this generation to leave future generations a legacy not of  excessive debt and limited prospects but of renewed technological leadership  and economic opportunity.


The  Task Force on American Innovation”

A  similar effort to reduce Government spending in the United Kingdom has taken  place this year.  The Government’s  Spending Review (GSR), presented to the Parliament on October 20, sets departmental  spending budgets up to 2014-15.  This  much anticipated plan is the Government’s response to a reliance on borrowing  that last year was one-fourth of all expenditures.   The GSR  makes 19%+ reductions in many departmental budgets.   UK scientists were relieved that the Review  did not make feared cuts in science funding.

On  page 22 of the GSR  is a section entitled “Prioritising growth enhancing spending” that states:

“The  Government has also prioritised current spending which helps deliver outcomes  that support growth, including a strong science and research base, which the  private sector would not provide.  For  example, it is increasing core funding for schools and expanding adult  apprenticeships, and priortises funding for  world class research.”

The  following selection from a part of the Plan entitled Science explains:

“To  support long term growth, the Government will prioritise support for world  class science maintaining spending in cash terms.  The Government will also increase the  efficiency of the science budget . . . .   These efficiency savings will be reinvested in science.  A ring-fence will be maintained to ensure  continuity of investment in science and research.”

This  science funding will remain level during the four years.   Expressed in US currency, it totals $7.3  billion. Yet to be determined are final funding levels for capital expenditures  on facilities by the research councils and contributions to international  organizations, money for Regional Development Agencies that can be used to  finance research parks, and university funding. 

In  response to a related Government document released yesterday,  John Brindley of the Institute of Physics stated:

“The  National Infrastructure Plan lays out a commitment to invest in the equipment  necessary for a science base that can underpin our economic growth, recognising  that continued investment in facilities like the Diamond Synchrotron Light  Source gives our scientists the very best tools to innovate.

“It  is apparent that the Government has listened to the argument for science and  agrees that keeping the UK at the forefront of world research has a strong  business case. Now, with the introduction of R&D centres, we hope hi-tech  business start-ups can grab the baton and use the nation’s intellectual capital  to excel in world markets.

“Science  is the surest route to growth and, as our politicians have shown the courage to  avoid short-term cuts, it is now up to the science community to help the  Government deliver the economic growth the nation needs."