Crazy About Competitiveness

U.S. Congress and White House look to boost science and technology education

In what is otherwise a very diet-conscious 2007 budget proposal for U.S. domestic programs, President George W. Bush aims to fatten up one sliver of U.S. spending: programs devoted to science, math, and engineering education. The president's focus on supporting basic science and on K­12 science and math education is shared--and expanded on--by a number of congressional proposals, all of which stem from the same fountainhead: a recent high-level report that calls for better-trained U.S. workers.

The report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," issued by a special committee of the U.S. National Academies last October, warned that the U.S. economy "will suffer, and our people will face a lower standard of living...without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology." The need for better-trained, more technologically sophisticated workers and engineers, the report continued, has been heightened by the effects of globalization, which has produced a situation in which "workers in virtually every sector must now face competitors who live just a mouse click away in Ireland, Finland, China, India, or dozens of other nations whose economies are growing."

Norman R. Augustine, the former Lockheed-Martin chief executive and IEEE Fellow who chaired the National Academies committee, says, "It all comes down to U.S. jobs" [see photo, " "].

Bush picked up that theme in his State of the Union address in January [see photo, " "]. He announced his American Competitiveness Initiative, a broad package of proposals to increase investments in R&D, strengthen education, and encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. The signature component in the president's plan is a doubling over 10 years--to a total of US $50 billion--of investment in key federal agencies that support basic research programs in the physical sciences and engineering: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology. The NSF budget, for example, would jump 7.9 percent in 2007, a boost of $439 million.

Bush would also throw $380 million into the education till in 2007, in an effort to kick-start an expansion of the high-school-level Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate (AP/IB) Program, which enables high school students to do, and get credit for, college-level work, and to create a new Adjunct Teacher Corps to encourage up to 30 000 math and science professionals over eight years to become adjunct high school teachers.

In some respects, two bipartisan bills introduced two months before Bush's State of the Union anticipated his competition initiative: the Protect America's Competitive Edge (PACE) Act, sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), and the National Innovation Act (NIA), sponsored by Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). Both bills also recommend doubling the NSF budget but otherwise diverge somewhat from Bush's plan.

The PACE Act, pushed by senators on the energy committee, gives the Department of Energy a variety of new programs--for example, special secondary schools for math and science, future centers of excellence in math and science at national laboratories, and a distinguished scientists program at the labs. The bill includes an increase of 10 percent per year through 2013 for NASA's basic research budget.

The PACE Act has an AP/IB provision but does not have the high school math and science teacher emphasis of Bush's proposal. The NIA is silent on K­12 education, establishes a much more limited number of new university programs than PACE (though Bush's proposal is even more limited in the university science area), and adds some manufacturing initiatives--instructing the Department of Commerce, for example, to promote the development and implementation of state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing.

Although all the proposals appear to make sense, they may bring skeptics out of the woodwork, and those could include some armed with past erroneous predictions of U.S. economic demise. Augustine was heavily involved in warning about the Japanese threat of the mid-1980s and in developing a U.S. response, such as Defense Department funding of Austin, Texas­based Sematech Inc., the U.S. semiconductor research consortium. But when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) pulled its funding out of Sematech in 1996, the U.S. members went hat in hand to foreign companies, some of which were brought in to help fund Sematech's $150 million budget. In fact, Sematech spokesman Dan McGowan makes the point that the company's embrace of enterprises such as Infineon (Germany), Samsung (South Korea), Philips (Netherlands), and TSMC (Taiwan) has helped save the U.S. semiconductor industry, which has survived because of cooperation, not competition, with foreign firms.

Augustine concedes it's "a fair question" whether the concern over China and India is any more legitimate than the worry about Japan was. "But I have to say that times are different today," he explains. China and India have embraced the free market and now "are copying our technological methods." With regard to the resurgence of the U.S. semiconductor industry, he says dryly, "The competitor we were worried about then, Japan, imploded. You can't go through life betting that your competitors will implode."

Retired Merck and Co. Chairman R. Roy Vagelos, who was responsible for making K­12 math and science education the No. 1 priority of the Augustine committee, notes that the United States is producing 70 000 engineers a year, while China is producing 350 000. "It is a matter of overall numbers and quality," he says, explaining that too many K­12 math and science teachers are untrained in their subjects and are failing to excite their students.

All three proposals--Bush's and the two from Congress--would cost a considerable amount at a time when the federal deficit in fiscal 2007 is projected to be $354 billion. Samuel M. Rankin III, director of the American Mathematical Society and chairman of the Coalition for National Science Funding, says the president's proposal to increase the NSF budget by 7.9 percent in 2007 is welcome, given the agency's flat budgets of past years. But the $6 billion level the president proposes for 2007 is well short of the $10 billion level Congress authorized for 2007 four years ago. "We still need to do more," Rankin notes, to get to the intended level.

Moreover, Rankin explains that the House and Senate appropriations committees will be under intense pressure to divert some of the money for the NSF to the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., whose budget doubled in a recent five-year period but has since suffered some squeezing. Bush's fiscal 2007 proposal includes a reduction for the National Cancer Institute, for example.

But even if basic science research budgets are doubled in the next five years, Rankin worries about what will happen after that period is over. He says an NIH-like boom-or-bust funding approach plays havoc with academic researchers, who never know when the funding will stop. And when it does, a project often comes crashing to a halt, without yielding the kinds of research gains that require many years of patient, careful research attention.

Deborah L. Wince-Smith is president of the Council on Competitiveness, in Washington, D.C., which former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO John Young helped create in the 1980s after he wrote the "Here Come the Japanese" report for President Ronald Reagan. Wince-Smith says the United States must accelerate funding in frontier research and make sure that U.S. children have the skills needed for high-wage jobs. But national economic success depends on more than just producing additional, better-educated engineers, she adds. "It is just as important that we ground our kids in art and music," she continues. "The Soviet Union had the most scientists and engineers in the world. But there was no creativity under that system. You need a strong liberal arts education along with math and science, because that pushes how we think, how we look at the world."

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