During the past few years, some colleagues and I have argued about the possibility that the United States is facing a decline in competitive technical and scientific edge. This debate gained new fuel as we reviewed the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” presented to the House Science Committee on Oct. 20.
The report was commissioned to assess “America’s ability to compete and prosper in the 21st century, and to propose appropriate actions to enhance the likelihood of success.” Norman Augustine, former Lockheed Martin CEO and chair of the Committee, stated, “it is the unanimous view of our committee that America today faces serious and intensifying challenge with regard to its future competitiveness and standard of living. Further, we appear to be on a losing path.” He presented several interesting facts, including:
• 24-hr workdays now available (send the work off to another country and have it back in a matter of hours).
• Back-offices of U.S. firms operate in several other countries.
• For the cost of one scientist or engineer in the United States, a company can hire multiple personnel abroad.
• Last year, chemical companies shuttered 70 facilities in the United States and have tagged 40 more for closure. Of 120 chemical plants being built around the world with price tags of $1 billion or more, one is in the United States and 50 are in China.
• In 2001, U.S. industries spent more on tort litigation than on research and development.
Augustine reported that to ensure the United States is among the relative winners in the globalization race, and to raise awareness about constructive solutions, the committee suggests, among other items:
1. “Ten thousand teachers, ten million minds” – significant improvement in the K-12 math and science education, including recruitment of 10,000 new science and math teachers each year.
2. “Sowing the Seeds” – a 10-percent increase in federal investment during the next seven years with a focus on physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and information sciences; and, establishing an Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) to address long-term energy needs.
3. “Best and Brightest” – develop, recruit, and retain top students, scientists, and engineers from the United States and abroad. And,
4. “Incentives for Innovation” – revising the U.S. patent system and tax policies to encourage innovation, and ensuring affordable broadband Internet access.
The House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert summarized the report’s findings by stating: “Complacency will kill us. If the United States rests on its withering laurels in this competitive world, we will witness the slow erosion of our pre-eminence, our security, and our standard of living.”
As some of my colleagues and I argue: The time to act is now, while we are still a bit ahead of the race.