American Competitiveness: A Focal Point for Cooperation
Between Industry and Academia (11/06)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Carrie Donnelly is reprinted from the November 2006 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

By launching the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) in his State of the Union Address of January 31, 2006, President George W. Bush provided fresh impetus to a growing movement among science and technology experts. These experts seek to increase public support for research by associating the country's capacity for innovation and its competitiveness in scientific and technological achievement with its future prosperity and security. The movement grew out of the economic hardships of the mid 1980's, when a consortium of leaders in academics and industry formed the Council on Competitiveness. The council strove for two decades to communicate their concerns about America's declining market share in innovative technologies and shrinking intellectual capital to the public. The President's initiative and the subsequent competitiveness legislation are a triumph for this effort, and a testimony to the importance of cooperation between industry and academia. Each of these sectors, especially within the earth sciences, will benefit from increased access to funding and from a more vigorous, competitive workforce.

At a congressional briefing on July 13, 2004, Council on Competitiveness President Deborah Wince-Smith testified that U.S. investment in science and technology (S&T) is not sufficient to motivate the kinds of innovation that have traditionally given U.S. industry an edge in the global economy. Efforts by other nations to emulate America's success in S&T innovation have resulted in stiff competition for the world's brightest intellects, industry investment and leadership in scientific advancement. Senators Lamar Alexander (R - TN) and Jeff Bingaman (D - NM) spoke at the briefing in support of increased government efforts to enhance the country's capacity for innovation in order to ensure its continued ability to compete on the world's stage. At the Engineering Research and Development Symposium in May of 2005, Senator Bingaman described a recent tour of Southeast Asia, during which he witnessed firsthand the energetic construction of S&T infrastructure and concomitant education and employment of thousands of bright young scientists and engineers. This experience, combined with the insightful testimony of industry and academic leaders, prompted Senators Alexander and Bingaman to request that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) produce a report on U.S. innovation and competitiveness. The report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," was released in October, 2005.

The NAS report described challenges to U.S. S&T competitiveness ranging from lack of federal research funding to poor immigration policies. It contained a number of specific recommendations, which were incorporated into the ACI and competitiveness legislation in the House and Senate. The recommendations fall under three broad categories: increased federal funding for S&T research; improvements in K-12, undergraduate and graduate science education and opportunities; and improvement of the private S&T research environment.

The ACI proposes to double funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's Office of Science (DOE-Science), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) over the next ten years. This represents a crucial reversal of federal policy that for the past several years has allowed these budgets to stagnate or decay. All told, the increases would amount to $50 billion in new federal funding for research and development. In order to stimulate private investment in S&T, the ACI proposes to make the research and development tax credit permanent. This will allow companies to be more secure as they plan their future budgets and make the cost of doing research in the United States more competitive with costs abroad. Economic incentives alone, however, cannot entice domestic investment if the talent pool is too shallow. Therefore, the ACI advocates sweeping changes in immigration law that would make it possible to attract and retain the best minds from around the world. The initiative also requests $380 million in new federal funding for improvements in K-12 math, science and technological education.

On January 25, 2006, Senators Alexander and Bingaman were joined by Senators Pete Domenici (R - NM) and Barbara Mikulski (D - MD) in announcing the "Protecting America's Competitive Edge (PACE) Act," which consisted of three separate bills (S. 2196, S. 2197 and S. 2198). The act was generally consistent with recommendations contained in the NAS report and with the President's ACI. It also creates a new research agency within DOE, the Advanced Research Programs-Energy (ARPA-E), that would award cash prizes for outstanding scientific achievement in energy research and technology development. The PACE legislation also accelerates the ACI's timeline, doubling R&D funding over just seven years. Like the ACI, the PACE Act would streamline the visa process for foreign students and make the research and development tax credit permanent.

The most popular competitiveness legislation in the House is more restricted than the PACE legislation. The two bills that were unanimously passed by the House Science Committee on June 7, 2006 are both designed to strengthen the science and engineering workforce by improving public education and making careers in science more accessible and attractive. The "Early Career Research Act" (H.R. 5356) provides funding to DOE's Office of Science and to NSF to encourage young scientists to embark on high-risk, high-return research projects and to help universities acquire cutting-edge equipment. The "Science and Mathematics Education for Competitiveness Act" (H.R. 5358) strengthens all levels of science and technology education. Rather than creating new programs to coincide with the President's ACI, the House legislation builds on existing education programs at NSF.

The main challenge for the competitiveness legislation is that it must remain a high priority for Congress over many years, in spite of large budget deficits and the high costs of war and disasters. Keeping the spotlight on competitiveness will require continuous communication and support from industry and academia. Together they have the influence and authority to keep competitiveness at the forefront of U.S. policy and public consciousness. Maintaining this partnership will improve the stability of federal funding, facilitate scientific advancement and ensure a pre-eminent place for the U.S. in the global economy for years to come.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted December 3, 2007

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