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Fueling America’s Innovation Now
Linda Rowan

After the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth, federal funding for science and engineering to drive innovation and advance technology in the 20th century climaxed. Developed by the Soviet Union, Sputnik reawakened the United States to the need to invest in research and development, so that it could remain competitive in the global marketplace and the Cold War.

As a result, in the 1960s, research and development funding as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) nearly doubled (it peaked at 1.92 percent in 1964), mostly for defense and space exploration. Although research and development spending decreased as the Apollo program wound down, it was again buoyed slightly by funding for energy-related technology during the energy-volatile 1970s. Since then, expenditures for research and development in the physical sciences have declined drastically and now hover around 0.78 percent of GDP.

With those decreases has come a creeping crisis of a shrinking skilled workforce and dampened technological advances in the United States. The country seems to be waiting for the next Sputnik moment to wake it from this malaise.

Domestic harbingers of the creeping crisis include a growing demand for more skilled labor, complicated by a decline in the average number of students earning science and engineering degrees, and an aging skilled workforce. In response, a growing chorus of government agencies, nonprofit societies, trade organizations and private companies are taking action individually or in coalitions to awaken the sleeping giant of American ingenuity. Their actions have led to the release of more than 16 studies in the past two years on the status of U.S. innovation and competitiveness.

Many of these studies have ominous titles such as “Looming Workforce Crisis.” Their main point is that the United States is losing its competitive edge in science and technology and needs a more significant commitment to increased federal funding for research and development and improved math and science education.

The Bush administration and many members of Congress are now heeding the warnings and embracing the recommendations of these studies, especially the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which contains 20 specific policy recommendations for improving innovation and competitiveness (see Geotimes, January 2006). In his State of the Union Address in January, President Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative. Meanwhile in the Senate, Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Lamar Alexander (R-Ala.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) introduced a bill called “Protecting America’s Competitive Advantage” (PACE). And in the House, Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the ranking member on the House Science Committee, introduced three bills based on the NAS report’s recommendations.

All of these proposals request a doubling of federal funding for physical science basic research over seven to 10 years, and provide significant funds for math and science K-12 education, as well as more grants, scholarships and tax incentives for math and science undergraduate and advanced degree students. The congressional legislation also focuses on energy research and development and establishes an Advanced Research Project Agency in the Department of Energy to fund high-risk research projects to develop energy resources.

In his State of the Union Address, Bush proposed a different initiative — the Advanced Energy Initiative, which includes a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research — noting America’s addiction to oil (see Geotimes online, Web Extra, Feb. 3, 2006). Americans consume about 25 percent of global oil resources and global energy demand is expected to increase by 57 percent by 2025, according to the Energy Information Administration. Not only must the United States conserve more energy as exploding economies in China and India demand more, but it also must develop cleaner and more cost-effective energy resources, as well as cleaner, more efficient and more cost-effective exploration and extraction methods.

The energy initiative and the competitiveness proposals address the global energy supply-demand pressures from two complementary directions. To develop energy resources and exploration methods, more funding and more skilled labor are both necessary.

Currently, only 6 percent of American undergraduates are completing degrees in engineering, compared to more than 40 percent of Chinese undergraduates, according to the recent NAS report. In addition, since 1983, half of the petroleum engineering programs (17 of 34) and about half of the mining programs (13 of 25) in the United States have closed, leaving fewer opportunities for research and education in vital areas of applied geology.

The president’s competitiveness initiative would cost about $136 billion, with $86 billion estimated for tax credits and only about $50 billion for research funding over 10 years. The PACE legislation would cost about $50 billion over seven years. With the country facing a ballooning budget deficit, with the war in Iraq and continued emergency relief for Hurricane Katrina, cost is where these bills may lose their momentum. Nonetheless, even with this gloomy budget forecast, the bipartisan introduction of so many initiatives with such ambitious programs is a positive indication that more funding for science and engineering is a national priority (see Geotimes online, Web Extra, Feb. 7, 2006).

Meeting the country’s energy needs represents a major component of the creeping crisis and may be the Sputnik moment we need to gain significant and necessary advancements in research and math and science education. We need increased investment now to efficiently and securely tap into new energy resources and technology for current and future demands.


Rowan is director of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. E-mail: rowan@agiweb.org.

Links:

"U.S. Science Gap on Global Stage," Geotimes, January 2006
"Bush addresses alternative energy," Geotimes online, Web Extra, Feb. 3, 2006
"Budget blues and bonuses," Geotimes online, Web Extra, Feb. 7, 2006

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