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Policy

Losing The Competitive Edge

Science Funding: Report says increased federal support is necessary for research, education

by David J. Hanson
October 4, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 88, ISSUE 40

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Credit: William K. Geiger/NAS
Augustine (left) and National Academy of Engineering President Charles M. Vest discuss the release of the Academies’ new assessment on U.S. competitiveness.
Credit: William K. Geiger/NAS
Augustine (left) and National Academy of Engineering President Charles M. Vest discuss the release of the Academies’ new assessment on U.S. competitiveness.

Despite efforts over the past five years, U.S. progress in science and math education is severely lacking, a committee of the National Academies reports.

The committee is the same one that wrote the 2005 report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which resulted in serious efforts to improve U.S. international competitiveness. Responding to that report, Congress passed major legislation, the 2007 America Competes Act, which implemented the report’s call to double U.S. investment in physical sciences research and improve science and mathematics education.

Nonetheless, “the committee unanimously concluded that America’s competitive situation is even more perilous today than it found it to be five years ago,” Norman R. Augustine testified at a hearing of the House Committee on Science & Technology last week. Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, was chairman of the panel for both studies.

What progress had been made is in danger of lapsing, Augustine pointed out. The America Competes Act, which authorized new education and research programs, expired on Sept. 30 and is in danger of not being renewed. Most of the new funds for basic research came from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was a one-time funding boost that is also coming to an end.

“We must continue what we started and recommit ourselves to our ideals,” Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the science committee, said at the hearing. “If this report tells us anything, it is that the worst thing we can do is let our efforts languish.” Gordon was a principal sponsor of the original America Competes Act and of the reauthorization bill (H.R. 5116).

The new assessment lists many areas in which the U.S. has failed to improve its competitive positions relative to other industrialized nations. Among these are patent awards: For the first time in 2009, 51% of U.S. patents were given to non-U.S. companies. The U.S. also continues to fall in international rankings of science and math education, and China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s number one high-technology exporter.

The panel recognized that the severe economic recession that occurred since the original report was issued has put tremendous strains on federal funds for research and education, Augustine said. These activities, however, must be supported if the U.S. is to respond to the international challenges it is facing, he added.

Most important is education, Augustine said. Elementary and high schools do not have enough qualified teachers, he noted, and many research universities have had to take extraordinary actions, including mandatory furloughs of faculty and large increases in tuition.

Another situation that needs to change, according to the panel, is how the nation treats businesses. Their report calls for progressive changes in U.S. tax policies that will favor innovation-driven firms that keep high-paying jobs in the country.

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