Cuts in research, technology will seriously erode America’s competitiveness

America’s advantage in the marketplace and its global pre-eminence in research and technology continue to erode.

This warning, forecast three years ago in the National Academies’ landmark report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” was that the U.S. risks losing its position in a global economy and its leadership in research unless we take aggressive steps to foster basic research and stronger math and science achievement by American students.

Six months ago, the academies hosted a national convocation to assess what has — and hasn’t — been accomplished since Gathering Storm’s release. Unfortunately, not much has been accomplished.

Other nations responded more swiftly to Gathering Storm’s recommendations than has the U.S., according to Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. and chairman of the committee that prepared the report.

Gathering Storm did help move America’s competitiveness issues onto the national agenda. In 2006, President Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) and Congress’ quick bipartisan response authorized funding for ACI basic research programs starting in fiscal year 2007.

In August 2007, the president signed into law the America COMPETES Act, which supported doubling funding for basic research programs, especially in critical areas such as alternative energy sources, supercomputing and nanotechnology.

Unfortunately, research funding fell victim to end-of-the-year politics. The bill led to yet another disappointing year of flat funding for key national agencies.

What members of Congress didn’t count on was a firestorm that ignited when research funding was stripped from the budget. Companies, organizations, universities including Vanderbilt, and national laboratories all called on Congress to restore pledged funds for STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and science and engineering research.

In late June, Bush signed a fiscal ’08, $162 billion supplemental spending bill. Most of this money will go to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the bill did contain $337.5 million for the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and NASA.

This funding is an attempt to restore some of the critical competitiveness funding that was authorized by the COMPETES Act, and has yet to be appropriated.

At the passage of the supplemental spending bill, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Murfreesboro, said we need to produce the world’s leading scientists and engineers. We’re lucky in Tennessee — our Washington delegation “gets it,” and its members are national leaders in the fight for increased STEM support and research funding.

Improving U.S. global economic competitiveness is a huge hurdle. This back-and-forth struggle only adds to our challenges. Despite it all, we have dedicated engineers and scientists and teachers who want to work to provide the solutions to these problems.

Truthfully, we have many ways to tackle competitiveness issues; cutting research funding is not one of them.

By Dean Kenneth F. Galloway