Bush Should Offer Science Agenda in State of the Union

Posted on December 8, 2005

“It’s an irresistible idea,” says Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and one can only hope that President Bush will embrace it — the idea of using his State of the Union address to launch a major initiative to retain America’s threatened world leadership in science and technology. Alexander and a bipartisan group of Senators, including Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), are preparing to introduce a bill calling for a $10 billion-a-year effort to train more scientists, engineers, and math and science teachers and to increase federal funding of basic research by 10 percent a year. Encompassing 20 recommendations issued in October by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, the bill includes funding of 40,000 scholarships, changing immigration laws to attract and keep foreign science students, creating a Presidential Innovation Award to stimulate scientific advances and establishing a new Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Energy. Alexander told me he’s personally urged both Bush and Vice President Cheney to endorse the plan. They were “interested,” he said, but made no commitments. Alexander said the idea is “irresistible” because “it has broad bipartisan support, it would help unify Republicans and it would give [Bush] an opportunity to build a legacy for his last three years.” Pursuing the same goal, Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) met Tuesday with Bush’s budget chief, Joshua Bolten, to urge science as a centerpiece for Bush in 2006. Speaking at the conclusion of a “National Summit on Innovation” convened at the Commerce Department at House GOP insistence, Wolf said that Bolten was “positive,” but he wanted suggestions on how the program would be paid for. Nothing in the House ever seems to be bipartisan, so House Democrats last month unveiled their own “innovation agenda” designed “to keep America No. 1,” calling for educating 100,000 new scientists and engineers over the next four years, doubling basic research funding and achieving energy independence in 10 years. If legacies, a bipartisan Senate consensus and the repeated urgings of various business and academic groups aren’t impetus enough for a Bush initiative, the prospect of having Democrats using the innovation issue in the 2006 elections ought to be. In the face of report after report indicating that the United States is at grave risk of losing its technological edge — which in turn is the basis of the high U.S. standard of living — the Bush administration and the GOP Congress so far have been (to be charitable) behind the curve on science and technology. Last year, Congress actually cut the budget of the National Science Foundation, and Bush’s 2006 budget called for less funding than the agency had in 2004. Wolf won a small increase, but still not enough to match 2004. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the primary funder of physics research, got just a 2.9 percent increase in fiscal 2005 and 0.9 percent this year — a cut after inflation. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the incubator of, among other things, the Internet and laser technology, got a 5 percent increase in fiscal 2005. The House approved 4.2 percent for fiscal 2006, while the Senate called for a 1.8 percent cut. At the innovation summit on Tuesday, Deputy Commerce Secretary David Sampson repeated the familiar administration line that research and development funding has increased 45 percent since 2001 and represents 13.6 percent of the federal discretionary budget. Sampson also asserted that the U.S. economic growth rate, 4.3 percent, is “the fastest in the world,” that “all of President Bush’s policies — tax, research and development, education and workforce development — are dedicated to making America more competitive.” In fact, the U.S. growth rate trails that of China (9.4 percent), Hong Kong (8.2 percent) and India (8 percent), and all the evidence indicates that those countries are far outstripping the United States in the training of scientists and investment in research and development. The statement issued at the National Summit warned in its first paragraph that “if trends in U.S. research and education continue, our nation will squander its economic leadership and the result will be a lower standard of living for the American people.” Retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, head of the NAS panel, told the summit that while medical research funding has increased, “we’ve neglected the physical sciences, where research funding is flat or decreasing. We’re eating our seed corn.” Augustine contends that the administration’s claimed increases in “R and D” funding are basically accounted for by development of new weapons systems, not basic research, which has been declining as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product for 20 years. Among other “worrisome indicators” cited in the Augustine-NAS report were these: In 2003, only three U.S. companies were among the top 10 recipients of patents in the United States’ own patent office. In Germany, 36 percent of all undergraduates received their degrees in science and engineering; in China, it was 59 percent; in Japan, 66 percent. In the United States, 32 percent. In 2004, China graduated about 500,000 engineers; India, 200,000; and the United States, 70,000. Given high U.S. wage rates, a company can employ five chemists in China or 11 engineers in India for the cost of one American. On the education front, U.S. 12th graders finished 21st in the latest round of international math and science tests, and only 41 percent of U.S. students were taught math by teachers who majored in math. In an interview prior to the summit, Purdue University President Martin Jischke told me that fully half of his science and engineering faculty is foreign-born, but “this talent pool is at risk” because of U.S. immigration laws and foreign competition. A forthcoming poll conducted for a Task Force on the Future of American Innovation shows that 70 percent of likely voters favor 10 percent annual increases in research funding. Bush deserves credit for aggressively responding to the No. 1 threat to America’s well-being — terrorism. He needs to do better in responding to the No. 2 threat, foreign economic competition.