Today the United States leads the world in science and technology development and enjoys a robust economy derived in large part from scientific and technological innovation. However, there are danger signs that the nation's historical dominance in these areas is being threatened. U.S. students score below the international average in math and science. The United States now imports more high-technology products than it exports. For the cost of hiring one young professional engineer in the U.S., a company can hire eight engineers in India. In 2005, only four American companies ranked among the top 10 corporate recipients of patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. These and other factors indicate that America's advantages have begun to erode.
This was the conclusion of a landmark report from the National Academies, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Chaired by Norman Augustine, retired CEO and chair of Lockheed Martin and recent recipient of the National Academy of Sciences' prestigious Public Welfare Medal, the distinguished committee that wrote the report included Nobel laureates and prominent business, government, and academic leaders. The report sounded a strong warning that the U.S. is losing its global competitive edge in research and technology. Without taking concrete steps now, U.S. prosperity will decline.
These concerns are not new. Similar warnings have been issued in the past, including Thomas Friedman's best-selling book The World is Flat, the Council on Competitiveness report Innovate America, and a number of reports from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Concerns were also voiced by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Jeff Bingaman, who requested the National Academies' report. "We're now playing in a tougher league," Alexander said. "China and India are competing for our jobs. The best way to keep those jobs in America is to maintain our brainpower edge in science and technology."
Rising Above the Gathering Storm stressed two major challenges that are tightly coupled with U.S. pre-eminence in science and engineering: creating high-quality jobs for Americans and responding to the nation's need for clean, affordable, and reliable energy. The report makes four recommendations and identifies 20 actions to implement those recommendations, including providing federal incentives for promising students to pursue careers in science and math or to teach these subjects in the K-12 system; funding professional development for today's math and science teachers; and increasing federal funding of basic science research by 10 percent each year for the next seven years. In addition, the report recommends establishing an organization within the U.S. Department of Energy to sponsor innovative research to meet the nation's long-term energy challenges.
To the excitement of many who have called for government action in the past, the Academies report propelled both the executive and congressional branches into making science and math education and basic science research top priorities. "Sometimes these things sit for years," said Alexander, "and then suddenly they come together in a big way."
In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative, which incorporates several of the report's recommendations. This presidential initiative further encouraged a flurry of legislative activity. In both the Senate and the House, committees outlined legislation based on the report. One bipartisan package of bills, Protecting America's Competitive Edge Act, introduced by Alexander and Bingaman as well as Sens. Pete Domenici and Barbara Mikulski, implements all 20 of the report's action items. A number of other bills have been introduced that focus on the report's recommendations about teaching and research.
The report's rippling effects continue. Rep. Frank Wolf, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Science, the Departments of State, Justice, and Commerce, and Related Agencies, strongly supports the increases in basic science research proposed in the report and the presidential initiative. "I don't plan to spend a year talking about it, like we had to do last year," Wolf adds. "We're going to get it done." -- Kristin Bullok
Kristin Bullok, a science writer based in St. Louis, holds a doctoral degree in chemical biology. She is a former Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Academies.