Powelson: Alexander pushes experts' ideas to protect U.S. economy

Posted on October 31, 2005

The drain of jobs and brainpower to other countries so concerned Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander that he has been working with a Democratic senator to get top outside experts to offer solutions. Alexander, a Republican, and Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico several months ago went to discuss the challenges with the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. The effort paid off recently with a list of 20 top suggestions for keeping America at or near the top in terms of economic development, high-quality jobs, research and development, and innovation. The next step is filing legislation to get committees to support many of the recommendations. The first good idea that Alexander and Bingaman had was to go to outside experts rather than watch members of Congress just keep arguing and worrying about what to do. Their interest and focus on recommendations prompted the outside experts to form a group of 20 panelists who were university presidents, Nobel Prize winners, CEOs or former presidential appointees. For example, some of the frightening statistics collected by the panelists show China and India last year graduated five to nine times more engineers than the United States. Of 120 of the larger chemical plants being built around the world, only one is in the United States. Only 41 percent of U.S. eighth-graders were taught mathematics by a teacher specializing in that subject, according to 1999 data, while the international average was 71 percent. Also, high-wage employers created only 29 percent of new jobs in this country in a recent period. To improve teaching of science and math, the experts agreed, award four-year scholarships annually to 10,000 promising science and math teachers. They also proposed summer institutes to polish the talents of 250,000 teachers in master's programs and advanced placement (AP) and international baccalaureate (IP) programs so they could better inspire students. AP and IB science and math courses at middle- and high-school levels are huge steppingstones toward successful college studies in these areas. So, the panel by 2010 wants to nearly quadruple the number of students in these challenging courses. As a partial incentive, they suggest offering $100 mini-scholarships for each passing score on an AP or IB math or science exam. Other priorities include increasing federal spending on long-term basic research by 10 percent a year for seven years, and give $100,000 research grants each year for five years to 200 of the most promising researchers still in the early part of their careers. Alexander began working on improvements for Tennessee schools when he became governor in 1979 and served for eight years. Later he was University of Tennessee president and U.S. secretary of education. He twice sought his party's presidential nomination and spent a lot of time talking about national education reforms. Lately he sought outside expert advice on keeping America a top world competitor, partly because Congress is looking for big spending cuts to help pay for hurricane damage, the war in Iraq and homeland security. He said at a recent Senate hearing he wants to preserve strong federal investment in science and technology, which creates good jobs. Congress, even with advice from the outside experts, cannot by itself get the country on a perfect path, Alexander conceded. He hopes that President Bush will agree with many of the goals in the report by the national academy representatives, address them before or during his next annual State of the Union address and lead public and private forces to accomplish them. The goals could help the country move toward a top world role in energy independence; in the chemical, engineering and health-care industries; and in creating many more well-paying jobs.