Competitiveness Initiative Aims to Keep U.S. Ahead of Global Trends

Months after President Bush first announced his American Competitiveness Initiative, Congress is getting around to funding the program aimed to keep the United States in the forefront of capitalistic prowess and innovation.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science is expected to take up the spending plan on Thursday. Before the July 4 recess, the House of Representatives approved a $6.5 billion bill for programs at the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology that, in part, advance the ACI.

"These agencies, which are not exactly on the top of everyone's tongue, are keystones of our nation's economic future," Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, said during debate on June 28, a day before the funding bill passed the House.

"Our nation will remain strong and prosperous only if we remain innovative," Boehlert added. "And we will only remain innovative if we have the most robust research and education enterprise in the world."

The attention paid to education, research and development and workforce training may be arriving just in the nick of time. Experts in the fields most impacted by a slip in the country's competitive edge say trend lines indicate the United States is beginning to lose its advantage to growing global behemoths like India and China.

"One has to say, looking ahead, we may be in trouble," said Peter Freeman, assistant director of the National Science Foundation for Computer and Information Science and Engineering.

Those trend lines include a lagging number of Americans becoming scientists and engineers; a growing number of U.S. companies getting advanced computer software from other countries; increased investment in research and development by other countries; and an increase in the number of skilled foreign workers choosing to return home after being educated in the states.

Announced in February, Bush said he wants the ACI to help stop the bleeding of science and tech jobs overseas, which could attract the nation's "best and brightest" to work and research elsewhere and leave the United States failing as a scientific and technological pioneer.

As part of its strategy, the president requested for fiscal year 2007 $5.9 billion for targeted research and development and $380 million for education programs, pro-business tax policies and skilled worker training programs. Many of the proposals came from recommendations found in the report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," issued by a panel of government and industry heavyweights in October for the National Academies.

"My 2007 budget recognizes the importance of innovation to our economic future — fostering and encouraging all the components that make our economic engine the envy of the world," President George W. Bush said in a statement when he announced the program in February. "With the right policies, we will maintain America's competitive edge, we will create more jobs, and we will improve the quality of life and standard of living for generations to come."

Click here to read the president's American Competitiveness Initiative (pdf).

Blinding Them With Science

Of course, many science and technology leaders in the United States say the crisis is not here yet. The United States still leads the world in innovation and spends more on research and development than any other country on the planet.

"We have indisputably the finest research universities in the world," said Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, who testified on these issues before the House Committee on Science last October.

But other countries are spending increasingly more of their gross national product on R&D, chipping away at American preeminence in advanced scientific output. Augustine said China increased its corporate-run research centers to 600 from 50 between 1997 and 2004. Meanwhile, the U.S. share of global high-tech exports has fallen in the last two decades from 30 percent to 17 percent.

Two years from now, the "most capable high-energy particle accelerator on Earth will reside outside the United States," he said.

"Colleagues here are saying they are getting very advanced software coming out of India — not the U.S," added Freeman.

Another trend is the growing number of patents granted to countries outside the United States. Augustine said in 2003, only three American companies ranked among the top ten recipients of patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. And while a decade ago American companies and engineers were granted 10,000 more U.S. patents than foreign entities, that margin is down to 4,000, according to reports.

Administration officials have said the U.S. patent office has "launched a vigorous reform effort," aimed at expediting patent and trademark applications. The administration has also pursued intellectual property protections in recent free trade agreements and officials say it's pursuing a crackdown on piracy practices in places like China, whose lax enforcement has hurt U.S. competition.

Elsewhere, many technocrats say federal investment in research and development has been inadequate in recent years. The president's initiative calls for $137 billion over 10 years in R&D funding with shares slated not only for the NSF and NIST but also for the departments of Energy and Defense.

Some of the programs that would benefit from "physical science research" monies in the president's plan include nanotechnology, biotechnology, cybersecurity and automation and control technologies. The administration is also seeking to advance hydrogen and fuel cell technology as energy alternatives.

"We still have some huge advantages," said Mitch Waldrop, a spokesman for the NSF, which has a $1 billion chunk of an ongoing nanotechnology initiative. "But nothing is guaranteed and time is not on our side, so we need to do better and start getting serious about how we are investing in research and in education."

Education and Labor of the Future

One indicator often cited to demonstrate a slip in American dominance is the average score of American students in math and science compared to developing nations. A growing disinterest by American students in careers in math, science or engineering will have a serious long-term impact on the country's "knowledge base," say educators.

As of 2000, the number of U.S. engineering graduates had declined 20 percent to fewer than 60,000, and the trend downward has accelerated. By 2010, if current trends continue, 90 percent of the world's engineers and scientists will live in Asia.

According to Pradeep Khosla, dean of the College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, China and India have vastly improved their graduate studies programs, and, if the numbers are correct, statistics show their citizens are increasingly choosing to remain in their home countries to study instead of coming to the United States to pursue an education and career.

"We are losing access to that top talent," Khosla said, noting that college students in the United States appear to be more interested in going into law, finance and business. The only option, he suggested, is to get students interested in science and engineering at an earlier age.

The ACI outline is to achieve that goal by putting millions of dollars into new and expanded programs that would not only train teachers and help raise test scores but also encourage research on the type of teaching and curricula that work.

"I can tell you the federal government has been serious about it, but it's just not happening," said Khosla, adding that while the president emphasizes No Child Left Behind and a push for better standardized tests scores in math and science in the public schools, those results won't necessarily translate into long-term interest in the fields of engineering and science.

But not all American jobs will be lost to a brain drain or cheaper labor overseas, labor analysts say. The United Stats is cultivating a skilled labor class for careers in health care, education, professional and managerial roles, business and financial services, hospitality, retail, information technology and communications — the fastest growing occupations in the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ivan Osorio, labor researcher at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said these "new skilled, knowledge workers" will require higher education and training, and the jobs will likely stay in this country. In most cases, these jobs will require a physical presence here, and eventually, the cheap labor opportunities for skilled jobs overseas will bottom out as workers abroad become more skilled, more educated and more demanding of top dollar salaries, he said.

However, as Augustine warned in his testimony to Congress last year, "few jobs seem 'safe' now." He pointed to U.S. accounting firms sending clients' tax returns to India for preparation and architectural designs for U.S. structures being drawn up in Brazil.

Freeman said the ACI and other proactive efforts to turn the tide are at least a positive sign.

"One saving grace of Americans is, we do rise to the challenge," he said.