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Experts at AAAS Forum Urge U.S. to Renew Its Commitment to S&T Innovation
Since writing a well-regarded report in 2002 on the looming shortage in America’s science and technology workforce, Shirley Ann Jackson has spoken often about what she calls the “quiet crisis” threatening the nation’s capacity to keep its technological edge.
Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and the former president and chair of AAAS, finds herself in good company these days, with numerous reports on the perceived threats to America’s preeminence in science and technology and more than a dozen bills introduced in Congress designed to improve the nation’s ability to compete in the global economy.
While emerging economic giants such as India and China poses a challenge to the United States, Jackson told a session of the 31st annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy that it is to our advantage for other nations do well in raising expectations and hope among their people.
Still, competition improves the contestant, she said, and the United States needs to “recreate the excitement and financial commitment that the nation exhibited after the launch of Sputnik” in 1957, an event that spurred a significant expansion in America’s training of scientists and engineers.
“The Administration and Congress must link the policy proposals to the budget, ensuring real investment in the components of an innovation agenda that are so critical to our nation’s economic and national security” Jackson said at the Forum session on innovation, held in Washington D.C. on 21 April.
States and some cities are not waiting for the federal government to act. Jackson noted that New York City, for example, will offer housing subsidies of as much as $14,600 to mathematics and science teachers who agree to teach in the city’s most challenging schools. Efforts to spur interest in science and technology careers “must tap into all the talent this nation has to offer,” Jackson said, “including women and minorities.” She calls them the “underrepresented majority.”
Robert D. Atkinson, president of the nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said he is worried there is not enough political will for Congress to act on innovation bills this year. Despite all the reports and the Bush administration’s push for its American Competitiveness Initiativewhich would substantially increase funding for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and TechnologyAtkinson said “there’s still not a consensus among Washington elites that there’s really a problem.”
[To read Atkinson’s full text, click here.]
Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, said there is no labor market evidence that the United States faces a shortfall in science and engineering workers as long as the country continues to attract the best and the brightest from overseas. The percentage of foreign-born Ph.D.s in science and engineering positions in the United States rose from 24 percent in 1990 to 38 percent in 2000, Freeman said. For Ph.D.s under age 45, the 2000 number is even more striking52 percent were foreign-born.
Jackson said the looming shortfall is real, however, and will result from a record number of retirements in science and engineering and too few students to replace the lost workers. If policy makers want more U.S.-born students entering the technological workforce, there are ways to encourage them, Freeman said. There is evidence that federal incentives, such as increased graduate stipend support, can do the trick.
But Freeman also cautioned that the United Stateswith 5 percent of the world’s populationshould expect to see its share of the world’s research and development spending continue to drop as China and other nations make a push in technology. The U.S. share of world R&D slipped from 40 percent in 1990 to about 33 per cent in 2003, he said. The United States had 13 times more spending on R&D than China in 1991. By 2003, it spent just 3.4 times as much as China.
There has been a renewed recognition of the importance of the science base in Europe as well, said Andrew Dearing, secretary general of the European Industrial Research Management Association. He said Europe is in a “three-way squeeze” as it tries to compete: low-cost, rapidly growing economies to the East in countries like India and China; a massive, scientifically advanced U.S. economy to the West; and, at home, high labor costs, rather stagnant markets and sophisticated consumers who have an “insufficient belief in the value of scientific progress.”
Dearing said there have been multiple innovation initiatives by European nations, with Ireland and Finland having particular success. The European Union has set a goal of devoting 3 percent of its gross domestic product annually to R&D, with two-thirds of the spending coming from the private sector.
Dearing also noted that the United States remains by far the most popular location for European companies to make R&D investments in non-E.U. locales, according to a recent survey of 202 companies. The U.S. was followed by China, India, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Brazil and Russia.
American companies competing abroad “can’t just take a North American solution and expect to be able to apply it around the world,” said Andrew Brown Jr., executive director for innovation and technology at Delphi Corporation, an auto parts manufacturer. “It doesn’t work.” Brown said Delphi spends a lot of time and effort on understanding global “megatrends,” both with and without consideration of their direct effect on the company’s business.
Greater longevity, for example, could mean more elderly drivers who want to maintain their mobility as long as possible. Delphi’s research opportunities might then include a variety of driver aids, Brown said, such as night vision assistance, monitors to assess a driver’s physical well-being, road sign readers and sensors to detect pedestrians.
The United States still does very well in the global marketplace with a strong presence in science and technology, according to Shirley Ann Jackson and others on the panel. “The United States is not in imminent danger” of losing its edge, Jackson said. It has mature government structures, policies that encourage collaboration and a thriving, diverse culture of risk takers, she said. But because the danger is not imminent, she adds, it is easy to ignore threats to the nation’s intellectual security.
Robert Atkinson spoke of the complacency in many quarters of Washington, where some analysts are convinced that all the talk of competitiveness is just “the wailings of disaffected Cassandras and special interest pleaders.” He said the United States acted decisively in the past when it faced competitiveness challenges, creating a host of programs, including the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, R&D tax credits, and collaborative research ventures such as SEMATECH.
“It may very well be that the United States will successfully confront its new challenges,” Atkinson said. “But success is much more likely if, instead of depending optimistically on America’s strengths, we act with the resolve and creativity we showed in the past.” Among other steps, he suggested an overhaul of the corporate tax code, including creation of a “knowledge tax credit” that allows companies to take a 40 percent credit on incremental increases in spending on research and workforce training, He also called on Congress to establish mechanisms for getting more federal funding to industry-led research alliances.
2 May 2006