Global Competition Fears Grow

Posted on October 26, 2006

Those concerned that the United States is ill-prepared for long-term global competition will make a push after next month's elections to add $20 billion over five years to research and education advances in math, science and engineering. Otherwise, China could become No. 1 in economic might, including taking many of the better-paying jobs, advocates for the new legislation say. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former University of Tennessee president, has been spending a lot of time the past 18 months to promote such legislation. In an interview, he used a UT football reference to describe the challenge ahead. "It would be just as if the University of Tennessee said: 'Well, we had a great year, so we'll just take two or three years off and not try to recruit good wide receivers, and we'll call off spring practice, and we might win a few games, but we're not going to stay on top.' " Is the country headed into rocky times or a joyful rendition of "Rocky Top"? Alexander said: "The dumbest thing we could do is stop increasing our investment and our brainpower advantage, because that is where our new jobs come from." While the bill for extra investment has broad, bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate - Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee also support it - some of the House's fiscal conservatives are questioning any huge increase. Among them is Knoxville U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., a Republican. "Everybody is in favor of increased education in science and math," Duncan said. "I'd have to see a much more detailed study first before I could support this (bill), because you're talking about $20 billion" on top of planned budget increases _for various federal research efforts. "We need to look ... to make sure that this is not just duplicating efforts that already are going on," he said. Universities and national labs could benefit from the new legislation. They would be able to compete for up to 10 percent increases in federal research dollars annually for five years. The Senate's bill in part would: Gradually double over five years the current $5.6 billion annual funding for the National Science Foundation. Plan over 10 years to double the current $2.6 billion annually to the Department of Energy's Office of Science. Set up a program to direct that federal agencies doing science and technology research target about 8 percent of funds to high-risk frontier research. David Millhorn, UT's vice president for research, said the bill could boost research work at UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which UT helps manage, but also aid other research universities in the state and improve the country's economic future. "This should not be looked at as a funding package for universities or national labs but to keep us on track to stay world leaders," Millhorn said. "It's going to impact all aspects of our life - quality of life, the economy." Mike Edwards, president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership, said business groups that studied the recent National Academies report on the economic future of the country are "scared to death." They see competitiveness and education challenges ahead as "the No. 1 threat to national security," Edwards said. So, the chamber is urging members to tell their congressmen to support the pending bills: S.3936, H.R.5356 and H.R.5358. The UT system receives about $300 million a year for research from various sources, and about 55 percent of that is federal money, Millhorn said. About 800 faculty and assistants are involved. Oak Ridge National Laboratory receives more than $1 billion a year for research, mostly from federal funds. About 3,800 people are involved, Millhorn said. On a national level, the federal government currently spends roughly $20 billion a year on research and related tax credits, Alexander aide Harvey Valentine said. The proposed bill would increase research and competitiveness-related education programs. U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, a Murfreesboro Democrat, is the senior Democrat on the House Science Committee. He and Democrat Lincoln Davis of Pall Mall, another committee member, supported the competitiveness bills that the committee passed in June with broad bipartisan support. But the GOP leadership, which controls the flow of legislation, has not brought the committee bills to the floor. "They have met opposition from some of the more conservative members in the House who are opposed to increasing domestic spending," committee spokesman Joe Pouliat said. "We are still working on that," he said. "We remain hopeful that we will be able to free these bills up" later this year. Gordon said extra spending on math and science education and research will lead both to more jobs for Tennesseans and to higher-paying jobs. Without a big investment, Americans could become the proverbial frog in the pot, he said, feeling OK for a while but facing severe problems as the heat is gradually turned up.