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Charles Vest: Support for Education and Research Needed to Prevent “National Nightmare”

The United States needs to take steps quickly to remain competitive in the global economy, Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, warned in a lecture at the annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.“A national nightmare could be unfolding,” Vest said during the annual William D. Carey Lecture on 5 May. “It doesn’t have to happen. It is the 11th hour, however, but this nightmare still need not materialize. Indeed, I actually don’t believe it will materialize. But we must get started now on a strategic agenda for the long haul.”

Vest gave the Carey lecture at the 36th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, held 5-6 May at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. The lecture honors the late William D. Carey, who had served as AAAS Executive Officer and publisher of the journal Science for 12 years. Before he came to AAAS, Carey served for 26 years at the U.S. Bureau of the Budget. Alan I. Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science, said Carey had a major influence on American science policy and “was really responsible for bringing AAAS into the science and public policy business.”

Charles M. Vest

The problems affecting U.S. competitiveness and their solutions are clear, Vest said, but there is no political will to change. In 2005, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives asked the National Academies to recommend how federal policymakers could promote science and technology, allowing the U.S. to “successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community of the 21st century.”

Their response, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, recommended improving K-12 science and mathematics education and strengthening the nation’s commitment to long-term basic research. It also suggested making the United States the best place in the world for research and innovation.

The report directly led to the America COMPETES Act, which since 2007 has provided funding for technology-based research and education initiatives. “Major components of the research budget increases we recommended have been funded during both the Bush administration and the Obama administration,” Vest said. “But this funding is metastable at best, having been added once by supplemental appropriation,” and more recently through the stimulus bill.

Moreover, recommendations related to improving K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education by training a 21st century teacher corps—the highest priority recommendations in the report—remain unaddressed, Vest said.

A follow-up report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, was released 23 September. It concluded that “in spite of the efforts of both those in government and the private sector, the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years,” Vest said.

Meanwhile, the number of engineers graduating in the United States has stagnated while considerably more engineers are graduating in other countries, especially China. “These are daunting challenges for us and for the generation of Americans to follow,” Vest said. “But I do not accept inevitability. Other countries cannot impose inevitability on us. It could only spring from a loss of will or lack of logical response within our own country.”

In the 1980s, Americans worried that the Japanese economy would grow to dominate the world economy, Vest said, but U.S. companies responded by facing reality and adjusting, which eventually led to the creation of new industries, including IT and biotechnology. “By facing reality and acting, the U.S. was able to persevere, and indeed entered an unprecedented era of economic growth and wealth generation as an entrepreneurial spirit exploded and our past investments in basic research led to a vast new array of products and services,” he said.

However, while changes in industry were enough to meet the needs of the changing global economy in the 1980s, this time it will take the combined effort of government, industry, and citizens, Vest said.

“If we do not invest vigorously in basic research, I think an economic downslide is assured,” he said. “If we do invest vigorously in basic research, we have a chance. By being first out of the box, and increasing the probability of transformational breakthroughs, we can be first to produce, and first to market. If we look clearly and holistically at our innovation system, we should be able to carve out job-producing space, especially at the high end.”

Vest challenged Congress to consistently fund the America COMPETES Act. “And I’d like to challenge all of us to stop shortchanging our children by failing to provide them with a world-class education that both inspires them to dream big dreams and empowers them make those dreams become reality,” he said.

“So, nightmare or dream? It’s really our choice to make,” Vest said. “At the end of the day, I am an optimist because I still believe that we can once again prove that Winston Churchill really was right when he said, ‘You can count on Americans to do the right thing after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.’”

Read the text of Charles M. Vest’s address and view his presentation slides from the 36th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

Read more coverage from the Forum.

See the full Forum agenda.