Struggling to Compete

The U.S. government must spend an estimated $10 billion more a year on basic research and training to compete in the global marketplace, a National Academies panel declared in a report released today. Citing a burgeoning technical base in Asia and subpar precollege science and math education in the United States, the group presented a series of recommendations ranging from scholarships to patent reform.

Congress requisitioned the study in May in the run-up to a December conference on industrial competitiveness. Among the recommendations made by the 20-member panel, which included Nobelists and high-tech CEOs, are 4-year undergraduate scholarships, worth up to $20,000 a year, for students who then commit to spend 5 years teaching math and science in the public schools. The panel also recommended a 10% annual increase over the next 7 years in federal spending on basic research, effectively doubling the current level of $27 billion, with an emphasis on physical sciences. To aid industry, the group suggests reforms to the U.S. patent system and making permanent an expanded R&D tax credit.

The call for a massive increase in federal R&D comes as Congress scrambles to complete the 2006 fiscal year budget under pressure from the unexpected cost of Katrina and the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "No one on the appropriations committee wants to see less funding for science," says a spokesperson for the Senate Appropriations committee. But House legislators are already talking about a 2% across-the-board cut for all federal agencies, she notes, from which "[t]hey have not wanted to exempt science."

"Today we are very likely on a losing path," said former Lockheed Martin chairman and panel chair Norman Augustine said in a Washington, D.C., press conference. Asked about the hefty price tag of the panel's recommendations, Augustine was steadfast. "We believe we cannot afford not to [invest]," said Augustine. The additional spending, he said, would create new industries and jobs and "feed itself in the longer term."

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