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Keeping America's Competitive Edge

National Academies meeting builds on report that identifies actions to keep U.S. competitive

by Susan R. Morrissey
October 16, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 42

Credit: IstockPhoto
National Academies report warns that unless more is done to prepare students for science and math careers, the U.S. may lose its competitive edge.
Credit: IstockPhoto
National Academies report warns that unless more is done to prepare students for science and math careers, the U.S. may lose its competitive edge.

Policymakers in need of unbiased information about science, engineering, and technology matters often turn to the National Academies for help. The National Academies, in turn, put together expert committees to study the issues and generate reports. The resulting documents, although well-respected and widely distributed, too often end up languishing on a bookshelf.

Every once in a while, however, a National Academies report comes along that becomes a significant tool used by Congress and the Administration to shape national policy. This is the case for "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," a National Academies report released last year (C&EN Online Latest News, Oct. 13, 2005). The report provides recommendations to bolster the global competitiveness of the U.S.

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

"I can't remember another report on this subject, or many reports on any subject, that so immediately intensified and gave focus to a policy discussion," said House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) at a convocation on the report held by the National Academies on Sept. 28. In fact, he noted that the report "took Washington by storm."

The convocation was intended to highlight the congressional and Administration activities that have resulted from the report and to build on these efforts at the state and local levels. All 50 states were represented at the meeting, which was held in Washington, D.C., and was webcast. More than 800 people took part at the Washington location, and 500 registered users took advantage of the webcast.

Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Bingaman
Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Bingaman

The "Gathering Storm" report was prepared at the request of Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) with the endorsement of Boehlert and Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.). The charge to the National Academies committee was to develop a prioritized list of action items that Congress could act on to enhance the science and technology enterprise and thereby allow the U.S. to compete, prosper, and be secure in a global economy.

Credit: William Schulz/C&EN
Credit: William Schulz/C&EN

The committee that undertook this study was composed of 20 distinguished leaders from business and academia. The group, which completed its work in just 10 weeks, was led by Norman R. Augustine, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin.

As requested by Congress, the committee focused its work only on actions that the federal government could take to keep the U.S. competitive and avoided addressing societal factors or areas outside of science and technology, such as literacy. The work yielded four major recommendations and 20 implementation steps to achieve them.

The first recommendation was to improve K-12 science and mathematics education. To do this, the report invited actions such as recruiting 10,000 science and math teachers annually with four-year college scholarships, strengthening the skills of current teachers, and better preparing high school students to study science and math in college.

The report also recommended that more support be given to long-term basic research by increasing key federal agency funding and creating new grants to encourage innovative research. A number of these action items have been included in the Administration's American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) (C&EN, March 6, page 57), which was catalyzed by the report.

Making the U.S. a more attractive place to do research was also recommended. Actions to advance this goal include providing new scholarships and fellowships for college and graduate students, as well as improving U.S. visa processing and the "deemed export" program controlling access to certain information and technology.

The final recommendation called for strengthening the U.S. economy by investing in downstream R&D activities such as manufacturing and marketing and creating more innovation-based high-paying jobs. Here, the report proposed strengthening the intellectual property system and providing stronger R&D tax credits and other tax incentives.

In addition to the Administration's ACI program, Congress has acted in a bipartisan fashion to provide funding increases for basic physical science agencies and to introduce legislation to address the education- and economic-based action items.

"Even in the highly divisive atmosphere that now prevails in Washington, there is unity on the fundamentals of competitiveness," Boehlert said. "The President as well as Congress and both political parties are touting their efforts to increase spending on physical sciences research and to increase focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education." Boehlert added that this unlikely degree of unity is "on the brink of producing some concrete results."

A group of senators, including Alexander and Bingaman, echoed Boehlert. "Nothing like this has happened in the U.S. Senate" in modern times, said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), referring to the bipartisan support to protect U.S. competitiveness.

This support led to the introduction in the Senate of the National Competitive Investment Act (S. 3936) on Sept. 26 by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Thirty-eight senators from both sides of the aisle have signed on to cosponsor the bill, which authorizes $73 billion in federal funding for science and technology and includes all of the "Gathering Storm" report's 20 action items.

The legislation came just days before Congress recessed for the election. The senators who spoke at the convocation were optimistic, however, that the legislation would be passed when they return from their recess in November for a "lame duck" session.

To help make passing this legislation a reality, Alexander asked the audience for help. Specifically, he told them to ask their senators to become cosponsors of the bill. He also urged organizations to thank President George W. Bush for his leadership on competitiveness issues and to ask him to use his power to coordinate support in Congress to pass this bill this year.

Alexander also called on the audience to reach out to their representatives in the House and ask them to pass the competitiveness bills on the House docket or to be ready to act on S. 3936 once it clears the Senate.

"What we have proposed so far is an important first step, but only the beginning of a long journey," Bingaman pointed out. He noted that when it comes to funding in this area, Congress and the Administration must avoid "robbing Peter to pay Paul"; that is, the proposed and approved funds for research must contain new money and are not simply reallocated from other effective programs.

"The introduction of that package is good news, because it demonstrates the Senate's commitment to this issue," Boehlert said. He noted that the House Science Committee passed a competitiveness bill (H.R. 5358) in June, but it has been stalled by conservative House members who don't want to increase domestic spending. This situation may delay action on the bill until the next congressional session, he added.

With respect to the Senate bill, Boehlert said that such legislation has little chance of passing in the House. He explained that he would have liked to see a more "streamlined and targeted approach" as opposed to the 209-page legislation package, and he warned that unless priorities are set, the legislation will have little impact.

As Congress continues to work toward passing key legislation, the call was also made for states and local governments and organizations to act to improve competitiveness.

Most of the funding for "K-12 education in this country comes from state and local sources," Bingaman explained. In fact, he said, the federal government's share of education funding is about 8%, or to put it another way, "92 cents of every education dollar comes from state and local governments."

Calling the path to shore up America's competitiveness "a journey, not a sprint," "Gathering Storm" committee Chairman Augustine noted that the effort needs to be at the grassroots level to really effect change. After all, he said, "this is where the rubber meets the road."

Inspired by the congressmen and other distinguished speakers, the more than 800 attendees spent half a day in smaller breakout groups. It was in these smaller groups that participants were able to share best practices and innovative ideas about education in the STEM fields.

For example, one session looked at how to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields, while another session examined how to get children, parents, and policymakers interested in STEM. The need to actively engage young students, to expect more from students, and to support students, families, and teachers were among the themes that emerged.

The participants were charged to take ideas and resources that they heard about back to their schools and implement them. The success of the convocation will be measured in part from e-mail surveys that will be sent to each participant a year and a half after the event.

"We can provide some money and some guidance and some focus," Boehlert said, "but the real work happens at the state and local level and in each classroom."


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