Leaders Urge “Political Will” to Support U.S. Innovation Culture

Robert Atkinson is an influential expert on innovation, and in a presentation at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, he detailed a troubling pattern that has emerged from the fields of global competition.


[Photo: © and licensed iStockPhoto.com/Darren Baker]


Across the world, more nations are becoming tough competitors, said the president of the nonpartisan Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF). They’re adopting rigorous innovation strategies. They’re dramatically increasing their investment in research and development and forming government agencies to guide the efforts. The United States, meanwhile, is only now developing a comprehensive innovation strategy. Its R&D investments between 1987 and 2008 were just a little bit better than stagnant.

The result? According to an ITIF study, “The Atlantic Century,” the United States in 2009 ranked sixth in research-based competitiveness among 40 nations and regions. When the study ranked which nations made the most progress between 1999 and 2008, the United States placed last.

“All these other countries are continuing to make these investments,” Atkinson said. “But we’ve decided that we can slack off and not continue to ramp up.”

The assessment was blunt, but it reflected the clear consensus among science and policy leaders who spoke at the Forum. They described a nation suffering not only from a weak economy and depressed federal and state budgets, but also from an uneven commitment to innovation and the policies needed to compete.

Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, warned of a “national nightmare” should the country fail to renew its culture of innovation. “We know what the problems are,” Vest said. “We know how to solve them. [But] we must develop the political will to do so.”

It’s the sort of unvarnished insight for which the Forum has become well known. This year, the 36th annual event convened nearly 500 U.S. and foreign leaders from government, education, and business in Washington, D.C., to hear top policy experts analyze critical issues. The Forum, held 5 to 6 May, was organized by AAAS Science and Policy Programs.

To be sure, there was good news. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, described how political support from President Ronald Reagan and every U.S. president since has driven vast, life-saving progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, some states and regions—the old industrial city of Cleveland, for example—are using innovation initiatives to drive economic growth.

White House science and technology adviser John P. Holdren detailed how key science agencies had mostly been spared from the deepest cuts imposed in other areas by the 2011 budget agreement. Under President Barack Obama’s 2012 spending plan, funding for basic and applied research would rise 11%, to $66.1 billion. But Holdren warned that budget and political pressures—next year and beyond—could create “enormous” challenges for S&T initiatives.

A telling example came from David Pomerantz, director of the Democrats’ staff on the House Appropriations Committee. Funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy hit $400 million in 2010. In 2011, the appropriation fell to $180 million. Obama is proposing $550 million for 2012. But, said Pomerantz, “there’s an element, especially in the House, that is repelled by the notion of clean energy or climate research.”

Other presentations at the Forum charted big-picture progress for innovation. Most of the trend lines were flat, or falling.

The tax code discourages research partnerships between industry and universities, speakers said, and the R&D tax credit is no longer competitive with similar tax policy in some other nations. Visa policies enacted after 9/11 remain an obstacle to talented foreign students and researchers who could make vital contributions to U.S. innovation.

Any long-term solution requires a focus on education, but there, too, speakers saw worrisome trends. Education was a central focus in the National Academies’ landmark 2005 “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report, but Vest, a member of the committee that wrote the report, said the highest priority recommendations—on K-12 science-related education and improvement of the teacher corps—“have not yet been substantively addressed.”

Time is running short, a number of speakers concluded, and they urged the public and political leaders to invest in innovation for long-term national strength.

“The United States used to be full of people who believed in endless possibility,” Vest said. “But pessimism is now holding us back... It is time to regain our optimism and our ‘can do’ spirit in order to remain a great nation and meet the challenges of our times.”

See Forum presentation materials at www.aaas.org/spp/rd/forum.