APS News

Inside the Beltway

The President’s Pledge: America Will Compete!

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

In politics, six months is an eternity. It’s a well-worn adage. And it’s usually accurate. President Bush’s popularity may be tanking in the spring, and the public may be disgusted with Congress, but the 2006 election is still many months away. Anything can happen between now and then.

Much the same can be said about the future of the President’s innovation agenda. The White House rolled out the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) in the President’s State of the Union Address. Among its four principal components: a permanent R&D tax credit, large investments in science education, visa reforms, and a pledge to double the aggregate budgets of the DOE’s Office of Science, the NSF and the NIST Core Programs over a 10-year period.

On February 6, the President made a down payment on his funding promise when he released his proposed budget for FY 2007. It contained a 9.3% increase for the total of the three agencies, 14% for DOE Science, 8% for NSF and 24% for NIST Core.

Pretty impressive, and in the eyes of many, decades overdue. But what will materialize six months from now is not easy to forecast. It’s too far away. It’s an eternity.

But if six months is an eternity, what is 10 years? Well, that’s almost how long ago U.S News and World Report published David Gergen’s editorial on the “7 Percent Solution.” If you’re too young to remember or too old to care, Gergen, an assistant to three former Presidents, took his cue from the late D. Allan Bromley (George H.W. Bush’s science advisor), who had been advocating for a 10-year doubling of the federal science budget as a matter of long-term economic necessity.

Gergen’s no mathematical slouch, and he knew that it takes annual increments of 7 percent to reach the doubling goal over a decade. He also knew that “The 7 Percent Solution” had a lot more punch than “Doubling the Science Budget.”

But neither Gergen’s punch nor Bromley’s clout had much impact on the Clinton White House or on the Republican Congress. Lobbying efforts focused on averting looming disasters. In that respect they succeeded.

But except for a brief up-tick in Clinton’s final year in office, federal support for the physical sciences continued to stagnate–until last year when the floor virtually collapsed under the DOE science budget. National labs sent out lay-off notices; user facilities announced reductions in running time; and Brookhaven said that it would mothball the Relativistic Heavy Collider for a year. Unless its funding were restored in the next few years, insiders speculated that Brookhaven might be forced to close.

Such was the bleak physical science budget landscape as Christmas 2005 approached. But following a series of mid-December meetings between industrial CEO’s and high-level Administration officials, including Vice President Cheney, OMB Director Josh Bolten, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Presidential Senior Advisor Karl Rove, rumors began to circulate that President Bush was willing to make competitiveness a prime domestic policy issue. In a matter of a few weeks, innovation and competitiveness had gone from the work of policy wonks to draft language in the State of the Union Address.

Of course, in Washington, nothing other than sex and bribery moves at lightning speed. And the ACI was no exception. In December 2004, the Council on Competitiveness had published its report, Innovate America; in February 2005, the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation had issued its analysis, Benchmarks of our Innovation Future; that same month, the American Electronics Association had released its report, Losing the Competitive Advantage; in October 2005, the National Academies, in response to a request from Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), had rolled out a set of competitiveness policy recommendations in Rising Above the Gathering Storm; in November 2005, the House Democratic leadership had announced its Innovation Agenda; and in early December, at the request of Representative Frank Wolf (R-10th VA), the Commerce Department hosted The National Summit on Competitiveness. They all concluded that without aggressive federal action, America’s number one ranking on the world’s economic stage was unlikely to endure.

Over the past decade, there have been many heroes–inside and outside government–in the fight to make innovation and competitiveness Beltway buzzwords. But in the last four years, few have worked harder than Norman Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed-Martin; Craig Barrett, Chairman of the Board of Intel; Burton Richter, former Director of SLAC and Chairman of the APS Physics Policy Committee; Senators Lamar Alexander, Jeff Bingaman and Pete V. Domenici (R-NM); and Representatives Frank Wolf, Sherwood Boehlert (R-24th NY), Judy Biggert (R-13th IL); Vern Ehlers (R-3rd MI), George Miller (D-7th CA), Anna Eshoo (D-14th CA) and Zoe Lofgren (D-16th CA).

It’s hard to predict whether the goals of ACI will be met a decade from now, and even whether this year’s down payment will materialize, once Congress has disposed with what the President has proposed. But without a doubt, were he still alive, Allan Bromley would be smiling broadly. In a real sense, the ACI began with him nearly a decade ago. And in Washington that’s an eternity of eternities.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff