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"Gathering Storm" back on the radar

September 23, 2010 By Eugenie Samuel Reich This article courtesy of Nature News.

An update of a landmark report repeats a stirring call for US investment in science, technology and education.

Efforts to increase US competitiveness by funding basic scientific research and education have failed to improve the country's global outlook, says a report released today by the US National Academy of Sciences, the US National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. It comes at a time when two key bills for science funding are set to expire and several science programs have had their budgets frozen in the current versions of the appropriations bills in Congress. "There is support for research but it is unstable, and these investments only make sense if they are sustained for the long haul," says report coauthor Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering in Washington DC.

The new report is an update of the National Academy of Sciences' 2005 report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm", which called for a ten per cent annual increase in government funding of basic scientific research for seven years. That report elicited rare bipartisan support in Congress for a bill called America COMPETES, which put several key science agencies on a path toward doubling their funding over ten years. Vest says the National Academies chose to update the 2005 report now because COMPETES is set to expire at the end of this fiscal year, as is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which financed the implementation of several of the report's recommendations. "It was on the political table," Vest says.

The updated report was authored by a 17-member committee chaired by Norman Augustine, a former CEO of Lockheed Martin corporation. It credits US lawmakers with implementing several of the 2005 recommendations, including the creation of Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy(ARPA-E), an organization to fund high-risk energy research within the US Department of Energy. But partly because of the economic downturn, and because other recommendations — including several on strengthening primary and high school education — were not implemented or not promptly financed, the competitiveness situation for the United States has worsened, the updated report says. It also states, "In spite of the efforts of both those in government and the private sector, the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years."

Stormy weather

At a media briefing in Washington DC, Augustine told Nature that revisiting the 2005 situation revealed a troubling picture. "Many of us were concerned that the US might be losing ground, and indeed we are," he says.

Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington DC, says his organization is very pleased that the National Academies are pushing forward their recommendations once again. "This is something unique for a National Academies report, and it's due to Norm Augustine's passion and commitment to making the case for the report after it's done," he says.

But Jerry Marschke, an economist at the State University of New York at Albany who studies the science and technology workforce, says he thinks the updated report paints an overly dire picture of other countries overtaking the United States on a variety of metrics such as number of scientific publications, number of US patents filed and number of high-rise buildings constructed. "The way they wrap up their policy recommendations, they're trying to scare people," he says. Despite that, Marschke adds that he thinks the general message of the report is correct: long-term investment in science and education will help to improve living standards and create better-paying jobs because skilled and educated workers with access to technology can be more productive.

Ron Hira, an engineer at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York who works on public policy and is an expert on the offshoring of US jobs, says the report does not do enough to address that issue. "It's hard to argue against investment in education and research, but if you only focus on that and not on the demand for those workers then what have you achieved?" he asks. "Just increasing the number of engineers seems like a really simplistic approach."

Hira was a reviewer of the 2005 report but says his comments were not taken on board. This time around, he was not asked to review. He notes that the committee membership includes academics whose universities would benefit from the investment in basic research that they recommend and industry leaders who favor flexibility for business and thus don't have an interest in giving concrete recommendations for how to prevent technology jobs from moving overseas. "There is no one on the committee who represents the interest of US workers," he says. "The report's a political document."

Sheila Widnall, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a reviewer of the report, says she found it very important. "Unlike other National Academies reports, which focus on a particular scientific issue, this looks broadly at the role of science in society," she says. "The challenge is the linkage between science and technology and the economy."

Vest says the committee discussed the dilemma of US innovation boosting the economies of other countries that are better able to translate research into development and manufacturing and concluded that the United States needed to position itself better to take advantage of its own investments. "But you can't stop the forces of globalization," he says.

The updated report diagnoses a "system failure" in the US political process in which amounts authorized by Congress for key science agencies are not appropriated in practice. Currently, the versions of the House and Senate Appropriations bills for fiscal year 2011 fund key science agencies at levels below the amounts requested by President Barack Obama and below the doubling path set out in COMPETES. But there is plenty of horse-trading still to come before the bills are passed, and the latest report will no doubt add to the pressure on lawmakers to find the funds. "This is for our children. If we can't do it for then the Lord help us," Augustine says.

With additional reporting by Adam Mann.


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