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Has U.S. Science Lost Its Competitive Edge?

29 April 2008 (All day)
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How far has the United States risen above the gathering storm of global competition in science? Not nearly far enough, warned a succession of luminaries at a symposium held today by the U.S. National Academies. Speakers at the event--designed to assess how the government has responded to an influential 2005 report to the U.S. Congress on how the nation could improve its research enterprise--offered up myriad solutions, from rallying the public behind the role of clean energy independence to the importance of curbing the national debt. But along with upbeat messages about the country's resiliency from seven members of Congress and three Cabinet secretaries, there was a good amount of finger-pointing over the current state of U.S. science.

"Not much has happened here, but a lot has happened elsewhere," noted G. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who this summer takes the top job at the Smithsonian Institution. Former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, who chaired the academies' panel that issued the report, ticked off a list of steps taken by other countries--from scholarships for Chinese graduate students to study abroad to a multibillion-dollar nanotechnology initiative by the Indian government--as a way to chide U.S. policymakers for what he sees as a woefully inadequate response.

Craig Barrett, former CEO of Intel, delivered perhaps the most stinging indictment of the current political system. "There will be winners and losers, and the losers are the ones who insist on looking backwards," said Barrett. "We continue to subsidize 19th century technology--like in the $290 billion farm bill--rather than the 21st century technologies that will allow us to remain competitive. We're fat, dumb, and happy."

Barrett's bitterness reflects the 2-year roller-coaster ride taken by the U.S. science establishment following the October 2005 release of Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. The report, delivered in a lightning-quick 5 months, offers 20 recommendations for improving U.S. science. Its top priority is training more and better science and math teachers, followed closely by a sustained increase in federal research funding for the physical sciences. It also calls for changes in how the U.S. government fosters innovation through mechanisms such as industrial tax credits, patents, and immigration.

Lauded by its congressional sponsors, the report was followed up quickly with a White House summit on competitiveness and a budget initiative from President George W. Bush that called for hefty increases at three science agencies--the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Last summer, legislation that incorporates many of those recommendations became law (Science, 10 August 2007, p. 736). But funding for most of the initiatives has yet to materialize.

Speakers repeatedly pointed to those anemic budgets as evidence that politicians haven't realized the threats to American preeminence in science posed by the rest of the world. "I feel that we're like Wile E. Coyote, chasing the roadrunner off the cliff and then looking around and realizing that there's no foundation under our feet," declared Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman astronaut, who runs a company that promotes science education. She talked wistfully of how the Apollo program had drawn her generation into science and engineering and how a similar national effort is needed now.

A few minutes later, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) unwittingly came to her rescue. One of a small group of legislators that requested the report, Alexander used the symposium to promote an upcoming speech at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in his home state on the need for a "Manhattan Project" to end the country's dependence on foreign oil. Admitting that he was not the first one to come up with the idea, Alexander said he would recommend following the academies' approach--asking a panel of experts to synthesize existing studies--and then challenging politicians of all stripes to put forward their best ideas. "We need to compete to see who can come up with the most creative and innovative plan for energy independence," he said, before boasting that "no other country approaches our collection of brain power."

Alexander was one of two senators and five representatives to address the group, along with the secretaries of education, energy, and commerce. The three major presidential candidates were also invited but declined to participate. "We were disappointed but not surprised," said Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C., noting that the state of U.S. science has rarely been mentioned during the long campaign.

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