Bad Forecast for U.S. Competitiveness, Says New Gathering Storm Report

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

The storm threatening to wipe out U.S. leadership in global science and technology is now a Category 5 hurricane. So say the authors of an influential 2005 report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm in a 5-year update of their work being released today on Capitol Hill.

The original blue-ribbon panel, sponsored by the National Academies, was led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. It said the federal government must dramatically improve science and math education in elementary and secondary schools and greatly increase spending for basic research in the physical sciences if the country wants to remain competitive in today's global economy. In 2007 Congress, which commissioned the report, passed legislation embracing many of its recommendations. But not enough has happened to implement those changes, says the panel in a 66-page review of its original recommendations, which also called for revisions to U.S. tax and immigration policies. As a result, it concludes:

The outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated … [and] the nation's ability to provide financially and personally rewarding jobs for its own citizens can be expected to decline at an accelerating pace.

The few bright spots, says the report, include funding a new agency to help develop clean energy technologies, expanding programs aimed at enticing undergraduates into teaching, and supporting more graduate students in the sciences. But little has been done to advance most of the 20 steps the 2005 report recommends to ensure U.S. leadership in innovation, according to the new report. The $20 billion for research in last year's massive stimulus package is simply a 2-year Band-Aid that expires next year, according to the report. That yo-yoing spending for biomedical research has placed that field in the same precarious state as the physical sciences and engineering, it says.

The new report acknowledges that the world has changed since the 2005 report. In particular, it notes that the impact on the economy of the so-called Great Recession and the rising federal debt, now $13 trillion, makes it even less likely that Congress will allocate the $19 billion a year sought in the 2005 report. But the original remedy is no less sound today, say the authors, and ignoring it puts the patient at greater risk. "Failure to support a strong competitiveness program will have dire consequences for the nation," the report warns.

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