Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks of Sen. Alexander - Keeping Our Competitive Edge

Posted on October 17, 2005

In May, Senator Jeff Bingaman and I, with the encouragement of Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, asked the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine this question: “What are the ten top actions, in priority order, that federal policy makers could take over the next decade to help the United States keep our advantage in science and technology?” To answer the question, the academies assembled a distinguished panel of business, government and university leaders headed by Norm Augustine that included three Nobel Prize winners. They took our question seriously, and I intend to do everything within my power to take their recommendations seriously. Tomorrow, the Energy Committee will take the first step in that response by holding a hearing to hear from Mr. Augustine and the academies. It will be the first opportunity Congress will have to hear their answer to our question. This hearing is primarily about brainpower and the relationship of brainpower to good jobs. The United States produces almost one third of all the wealth in the world (in terms of GDP)—but has only five percent of the world’s population. The academies explain this phenomenon in this way: “. . . as much as 85 percent of measured growth in US income per capita is due to technological change.” This technological change is the result, in the report’s words, of an outpouring “of well trained people and the steady stream of scientific and technological innovations they produce.” The United States has taken extraordinary steps to help create this outpouring of trained people and new discoveries that have given us such a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth. We have in our country almost all of the world’s greatest research universities. We have a unique array of 36 federal research laboratories. More Americans attend college than in any other country and the colleges they attend are the best in the world. We have had, at least until recently, a system of k-12 education unsurpassed in the world. Government support for all these enterprises has been massive. In 2001, the federal government spent $22.5 billion for university based research in science and engineering. This year the government will provide 60 percent of American students with grants or loans to help them attend the college or university of their choice. The federal government will spend nearly $17 billion on grants and work-study programs and will provide an additional $52 billion in student loans. In my last year as governor of Tennessee, half of state dollars and a larger proportion of local tax dollars went to support education. And our free market environment encouraged innovation and enterprise as well as billions of dollars invested in corporate research. Finally, to top it off, while we have been outsourcing jobs, we have been insourcing brainpower. 572,000 foreign students attend our colleges and universities. One half of the students in our graduate programs of engineering, science and computing are foreign. There are three reasons I put this question to the National Academies: First, Congress is facing huge budget challenges over the next decade as we grapple with restraining the growth of entitlement spending. I did not want tight budgets to squeeze out the necessary investments in science and technology that create good jobs. Second, as the report details, there are worrisome reports from all sides that in the new competitive world marketplace, the United States will have to make an even greater effort to keep our high standard of living. To put it bluntly, people in India, China and Singapore know very well that since their brains work just like ours, that if brainpower is the secret weapon to produce good jobs, then there is no reason that they can’t have a standard of living more like ours. They are working to develop better trained citizens and create their own stream of discoveries. Third, I wanted to ask the question to those who should know the answer. Members of Congress are not the best ones to guess what the first ten things we should do are to keep our scientific and technological edge. Congress is not efficiently organized to deal with broad recommendations such as these. I intend to work with my colleagues to see that all of the recommendations in the report are introduced and given a fair hearing in the various committees that have jurisdiction. But what really should happen is that President Bush should make this report the major thrust of his remaining three years in office. This challenge cries out for executive leadership. This challenge is the real answer to most of our hopes and the solution to most of our big problems, from high gasoline prices to the outsourcing of chemical industry jobs, from the shortage of engineers to the growing number of lower wage jobs, from energy independence to controlling health care costs. This is the challenge that most Americans wish their government would put up front. We have begun the discussion with a bipartisan question to the wisest Americans we could find, the ones who ought to know the answer. We have a remarkable opportunity now to act on the recommendations in the same spirit.