United States Competitiveness

January 23rd, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

It looks like science policy issues might be increasing at the focus of policy makers attention in the near term. Chemical & Engineering News reported late last week,

“A bipartisan group of senators plans to introduce a package of legislation next week aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness in science and technology by doubling federal funding for basic research and establishing a new science agency within the Department of Energy. The bills will be collectively titled the Protect America’s Competitive Edge Act. They would implement 20 recommendations contained in an October 2005 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that outlined a series of steps the U.S. should take to maintain its global economic competitiveness. The legislation would establish an agency at DOE called the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E) that would provide grants for “high-risk” research and development programs in the energy sector.”

The 20 recommendations referred to are from the NAS report “Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future”. The report was in response to a request from Congress that asked:

(1) What are the top 10 actions, in priority order, that federal policy-makers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community of the 21st Century?

2) What strategy, with several concrete steps, could be used to implement each of those actions?

Like kids in a candy store, the NAS committee was unable to limit itself to just 10 and came up with a list of 20 recommendations. Here are the recommendations:

Annually recruit 10,000 science and mathematics teachers by awarding 4-year scholarships and thereby educating 10 million minds.

Strengthen the skills of 250,000 teachers through training and education programs at summer institutes, in master’s programs, and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate training programs and thus inspire students every day.

Enlarge the pipeline by increasing the number of students who take AP and IB science and mathematics courses.

Increase the federal investment in long-term basic research by 10% a year over the next 7 years.

Provide new research grants of $500,000 each annually, payable over 5 years, to 200 of our most outstanding early-career scientists.

Institute a National Coordination Office for Research Infrastructure to manage a centralized research-infrastructure fund of $500 million per year over the next 5 years.

Allocate at least 8% of the budgets of federal research agencies to discretionary funding.

Create in the Department of Energy and organization like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Office called the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

Institute a Presidential Innovation Award to stimulate scientific and engineering advances in the national interest.

Increase the number and proportion of US citizens who earn physical-sciences, life-sciences, engineering, and mathematics bachelor’s degrees by providing 25,000 new 4-year competitive undergraduate scholarships each year to US citizens attending US institutions.

Increase the number of US citizens pursuing graduate study in “areas of national need” by funding 5,000 new graduate fellowships each year.

Provide a federal tax credit to encourage employers to make continuing education available (either internally or through colleges and universities) to practicing scientists and engineers.

Continue to improve visa processing for international students and scholars.

Provide a 1-year automatic visa extension to international students who receive doctorates or the equivalent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or other fields of national need at qualified US institutions to remain in the United States to seek employment. If these students are offered jobs by United States-based employers and pass a security screening test. They should be provided automatic work permits and expedited residence status.

Institute a new skills-based, preferential immigration option.

Reform the current system of “deemed exports.”

Enhance intellectual-property protection for the 21st century global economy.

Enact a stronger research and development tax credit to encourage private investment in innovation

Provide tax incentives for US-based innovation

Ensure ubiquitous broadband internet access.

Depending upon how this is financed it looks to me like a $5 to $10 billion price tag for all this annually, maybe more. Since both parties are strong supporters of both R&D and U.S. competitiveness, it will be interesting to see how this issue develops. One question that seems to be unasked is, will implementing these 20 recommendations actually lead to the desired results? That is, will they address the issue of US competitiveness? What is the problem anyway?

7 Responses to “United States Competitiveness”

  1. John Fleck Says:

    One of the problems identified in the NRC report – the huge disparity in engineering degrees being earned by Chinese and Indian students compared to their US counterparts – may be a myth, according to some new data from a group at Duke. From the Jan. 6, 2006 news piece in Science: “It has been widely quoted that the U.S. awards only 70,000 B.S. engineering degrees each year, whereas India churns out 350,000 and China 650,000. The National Research Council cited the numbers in a recent report on the U.S. need to beef up its scientific talent pool, and senators flogged them last month in introducing a bill to increase
    U.S. support for science. But a group at Duke University group led by sociologist Gary Gereffi and high tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa suggests that any degree disparity may actually favor the U.S.”

    (From Random Samples, Jan. 6 2006 Science, p. 21)

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  3. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    John- Thanks, very interesting. If it is not a myth, it very easily could be true at some point. What I am unclear about is why the NRC thinks that the US can maintain global dominance in S&T by focusing on producing more scientists and engineers. If India and China together have 2.3+ billion people, they can in the long run always produce more S&E graduates than the US. At some point the quality of education rather than just overall numbers has to be addressed. This will be worth some discussions over the coming weeks.

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  5. Rabett Says:

    Well, as a child of the Sputnik era, I know that throwing money at this particular problem works. However, it is also self limiting. You have to have jobs waiting at the other end of the pipeline. If you do, you will get a huge surge of productivity and invention.

    It is also not simply an issue of numbers of S&E graduates. The number needed is reasonably small so the huge population advantage of India and China is secondary. Their advantage would only be in having more people from which they could select the most talented. There is a real issue about finding the most talented which starts with providing a top notch education for all in elementry schools.

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  7. David Bruggeman Says:

    The NRC seems focused mostly on the pipeline – not either end so much as the middle. With the rise in postdocs, both in number and length, I’d suggest that expanding a system that focuses most of its attention on those who will get tenure will encourage an increasing perception of diminishing returns. What should change along with any increase in Ph.D. students is the encouragement to take jobs outside of the academic track. That encouragement needs to come from the tenured faculty as well – which is likely the source of strongest resistance to such an idea.

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  9. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of ... Says:

    Government – Solving Problems That Don’t Exist

    I still confused as to what problem we are trying to solve? America is the worlds’ wealthiest nation, the home of most technology companies, inventor of 70% of the world’s medicines and the world leader in computer technology. How are we not compet…

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  11. David Garrison Says:

    The problem is that enrollment in US science and engineering programs is declining relative to other fields less related to innovation such as business, law and education. This is resulting in tighter funding for such programs and a snowball effect, which further decreases enrollment. The result is that a lot of programs are shrinking and closing down. If this trend continues, we won’t have enough US trained S&T people to fill the needed positions in 10 or 20 years. This means not enough patents, inventors, new technologies or discoveries to stay ahead of competition from countries like China, India or elsewhere. Our economy is built on the fact that most of the high-tech products we (and other countries) use were invented in the US. Can you imagine if Microsoft, Apple and Dell were Chinese companies? What is India had invented the World Wide Web? The result would be a huge trade deficit were the US has nothing new, innovative or unique to offer the rest of the world. Virtually every high-tech company would have to move overseas in order to find a qualified workforce. The worst part is that this decline means that if we don’t do something we won’t have a strong enough educational infrastructure to train the people who are needed to turn this trend around. The proposal above doesn’t just throw money at the problem. It provides resources and education to the people who can make the biggest difference, teachers and researchers. Increasing the pipeline and opening the door for more innovation will lead to more start-up funding and the creation of new jobs. Remember these people create new products that lead to the creation of new companies and industries. Part of the Innovation Act not cited here is new funding for the creation of Professional Science Master’s Degrees which train scientists to work in industry in areas like: project management, entrepreneurship and intellectual property. All necessary areas as innovation is increased.

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  13. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    David Garrison-

    Thanks for your comments. However, the data on enrollment does not support your claims that enrollment is declining.

    According to the NSF enrollment in S&E higher educational programs steadily increased from 1998-2002:


    and across all disciplines:


    and in doctorate granting institutions:


    On the supply side at least there is no indication of a decline in enrollment such as you have described. NSF got itself in a lot of hot water crying wolf about a S&E shortage in the 1990s, see this debate: