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  Geotimes -November 2007 - Political Comment
A POLITICAL COMMENT ON ...

Science Legislation: America COMPETES, Geeks Rule and Everybody Wins
Linda Rowan

The 110th Congress went into its August recess having successfully passed a major measure for physical science research and science and engineering education. A bipartisan bill with strong support from most policymakers, the legislation will help all Americans. Everybody wins with this legislation, because making physical sciences a greater priority now will help the United States and other nations deal with the most significant technological hurdles of our time, such as energy, communications and information management.

The bill, bearing the long title of “The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act” or its catchier acronym, the “America COMPETES Act,” is designed to boost basic research, help advance innovation, stimulate technological developments and enhance the science and engineering capabilities of the nation. President Bush signed the bill into law on Aug. 9, 2007, calling it one of his most important domestic priorities because it helps “keep America the most innovative nation in the world.”

If fully funded, this blockbuster legislation will double the research budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Energy Department’s Office of Science and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) over the next seven to 10 years. For example, NSF’s budget would increase from $6.6 billion in fiscal year 2008 to $8.1 billion in fiscal year 2010. The research components of these agencies were singled out in the measure in an effort to focus on physical science research, including the geosciences. Since the end of the Apollo era, non-defense physical science research funding has stagnated, unable to keep up with inflation, leading to real cuts in basic research over time (see Geotimes, December 2005).

In fiscal year 2006, the federal government spent $78.7 billion on defense research and development and $57.3 billion on non-defense research and development, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In recent years, non-defense research has primarily focused on health, spending $29.7 billion in fiscal year 2006, and space, spending $10.4 billion in fiscal year 2006. Funding for general science was at $7.5 billion, environment about $2.2 billion, agriculture about $2.1 billion, transportation about $1.7 billion, and energy about $1.2 billion, with additional sectors receiving less than $1 billion. The new funding in this law would boost the general science and energy portfolios where most of the physical science research resides, and focus national research priorities on critical issues, such as energy resources and communications.

In addition to increasing funding for basic research, the law provides more than $33.6 billion over three years for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. This includes research grants for graduates and undergraduates in STEM fields, training in STEM fields for elementary and high school teachers, internships and other educational experiences in STEM fields for elementary and high school students and a host of other opportunities to enhance STEM education and to motivate more students to take STEM courses and hopefully consider STEM careers (see Geotimes, April 2007).

The educational component of this law — which is larger in terms of funding than the research and development component — is meant to improve the nation’s science and engineering capabilities and build the next generation of innovators, inventors and high technology entrepreneurs. The National Academy of Sciences report entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” and several similar analyses indicate that America’s science and engineering workforce is in a serious state of decline (see Geotimes, March 2006). Older scientists and engineers are retiring and there are not enough new scientists and engineers to replace them. At a time when America needs to boost its innovative capacity and technological prowess, there is a critical gap in qualified professionals to fill these jobs. This law attempts to close this gap as quickly as possible by providing support for America’s science and engineering capacity from kindergarten through graduate school.

While Wal-Mart will likely continue to be the largest single private employer in the United States, America needs its fair share of geeks (aka physical scientists and engineers) to help develop, build, run and maintain all the gadgets you can purchase at Wal-Mart and other large retail shops. In addition, the United States needs geeks to develop new and better ways to communicate and to manage information, new medical tools and procedures, new spaceships, and new technology to discover, extract, transport, store and efficiently use all of our energy resources, to name a few. Although the America COMPETES Act may not attract the full attention of the American people or other nations, it may be one of the more important laws broadly supported by the 110th Congress and the president in 2007.

If this new law can achieve its lofty goals, everyone will win. Students and teachers will gain greater confidence in their science and engineering capabilities, students with an interest in STEM fields can advance through a host of excellent opportunities, physical science research institutions can flourish and American geeks can compete with geeks from the rest of the world to advance technology for everyone’s benefit.


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

Links:
"Now We Must Conserve," Geotimes, December 2005 
"Education: Why Do I Have to Learn Geometry?" Geotimes, April 2007 
"Fueling America’s Innovation Now," Geotimes, March 2006 

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