Weekly Column of Senator Lamar Alexander - “Keeping Our Competitive Edge”

For the week of October 24, 2005

Posted on October 21, 2005

In May, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and I, with the encouragement of Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM), asked the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine this question: “What are the ten top actions 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 that included three Nobel Prize winners. They took our question seriously, and I intend to take their recommendations seriously. The Gross Domestic Product of the United States equals almost one third of all the wealth in the world — yet we only make up five percent of the world’s population. We are a fortunate country indeed. Nearly half of U.S. jobs since World War II and much of our high standard of living are the result of American advances in science and technology. The Academies explain this phenomenon by saying, “. . . as much as 85 percent of measured growth in U.S. 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. Our country is home to 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. We have 572,000 international students studying in the United States of America. Many of them are scientists, engineers and computer specialists. They come here because we have the best colleges and universities in the world. They help our economy by coming here, because they create jobs for us. However, there are three reasons I felt it was necessary to ask the National Academies what we need to do to maintain our standard of living. First, Congress is facing huge budget challenges over the next decade as we grapple with restraining the growth of entitlement spending. I don’t want tight budgets to squeeze out the necessary investments in science and technology that create good jobs for Americans. Second, as the findings of the Academies detail, 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, Singapore, Finland, and Ireland 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 we should do to keep our scientific and technological edge. In response to our question, the Academies assembled a distinguished panel of business, government and university leaders headed by Norman Augustine, the former chair of Lockheed Martin. They made 20 recommendations in four main areas: · Increasing our talent pool by improving K-12 science and math education; · Strengthening the nation’s traditional commitment to research; · Increasing the talent pool by improving higher education; and · Improving incentives and infrastructure for innovation. A copy of the report can be viewed on the National Academies website, http://www.nas.edu. On October 18 the Energy and National Resources Committee held its first hearing on the report. I will continue to work with my Senate colleagues to see that all of the recommendations in the report are introduced and given a fair hearing. Addressing the challenge set forth by this report 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, I believe, most Americans wish their government would put up front. We have begun the discussion with a bipartisan question to the wisest Americans who ought to know the answer. We now have a remarkable opportunity to act on the recommendations in the same spirit.