IN 2005, a blue-ribbon panel convened by the National Academies, called for dramatic efforts to improve science and math education in elementary and secondary schools and increased public investment into basic scientific research. The title of their report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” summed up the panel’s sense that America is headed for trouble, but the challenges were surmountable.
Two months ago, the panel reconvened to issue a follow-up report assessing the progress since 2005. Its conclusion was grim; the nation “has shown little sign of improvement,” the follow-up report declared, adding that “The Gathering Storm increasingly appears to be a Category 5.”
Bad news, especially at a moment when the U.S. is struggling to energize a faltering economy, when the political climate favors cutting back public spending and when many of our global competitors are investing heavily into innovation.
The day after the midterm elections, President Obama suggested where he stands on the issue when he said, “I don’t think we should be cutting back on research and development, because if we can develop new technologies in areas like clean energy, that could make all the difference in terms of job creation here at home.”
But partial Republican control of the legislative process could frustrate his ambitions. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science noted in a policy brief, “The 2010 Republican Agenda, A Pledge to America… [calls for], cutting government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels for the FY 2011 budget, [which] would cut the federal R&D investment by $8.1 billion (5.5%) from FY 2010.” And it would place “a hard cap on future growth of the discretionary budget, [which] would make it more difficult for Congress to implement R&D growth initiatives.”
Also, just a few weeks ago, after the midterm elections, Representative Eric Cantor, in line to become majority leader of the House in the next Congress, called for cutting the National Institutes of Health budget by 4.3 percent, or about $1.3 billion. And it’s still not clear whether the America COMPETES Act – a centerpiece authorization measure that would double the budgets over the next decade of the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy science research programs, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology along with programs to foster science education and innovation – will clear the Senate during the forthcoming the lame-duck session. If not, advocates will have to start from scratch in January when the new Congress convenes.
Robert Atkinson, President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank that studies innovation policy, is closely watching these and host of other factors that will affect how the U.S. promotes innovation and strengthens our economic competitive posture in the global market. As he explains, positions on both sides of the partisan divide in Washington could inhibit or help innovation promotion. Here are excerpts of my discussion with him a few weeks ago:
Do you agree, first of all, that the U.S. is not keeping its edge as an innovative power throughout the world?
Absolutely. We issued a report last year called “The Atlantic Century: Benchmarking EU and US Innovation and Competitiveness,” where we showed the U.S. ranks 40th out of 40 countries in terms of improvement in international competitiveness and innovation capacity over the last decade. This was based on a set of innovation-based competitiveness metrics within several broad categories: human capital; innovation capacity; entrepreneurship; infrastructure; economic policy; and economic performance. The U.S. is simply falling behind. Other countries have made innovation promotion a high priority, so they’ve restructured their tax code, their regulatory systems, their innovation policy systems.