Science and Innovation: Has America Lost its Competitive Edge?

February 8, 2013  |  Fred Schlachter

“America’s ability to compete depends on whether we have the present vision to conduct the science that will define the future,” said Congressman Lamar Smith (R-22nd-TX) during his first hearing as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held Feb. 6 on Capitol Hill.

The purpose of the hearing: “to examine the status of and outlook for America’s science and technology enterprise, examining the impact of research and development (R&D) on the lives of the American people and looking ahead to potential breakthrough innovations for the future.”  Smith was joined in the hearing by Ranking Member Bernice Johnson (D-30th-TX), who stated that scientific research has led to many innovations and businesses for our nation.

“Some specific examples of the groundbreaking innovations and companies that would not have been possible without federal R&D investments include the Internet, GPS, Google, the iPhone, and barcodes,” Johnson said.

The three witnesses, Richard Templeton, chairman, president and CEO of Texas Instruments; Shirley Ann Jackson, president, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; and  Charles Vest, president, National Academy of Engineering, offered testimony that underscored the importance of science, research and the need for the U.S. to focus on maintaining its technological lead in the face of fierce global economic competition.

Have we lost the competitive edge to China and India? This concern weighed on the committee during the hearing.

There was bipartisan concern about the effects of sequestration on science research and development, given the prevailing opinion expressed by committee members that R&D are the drivers of innovation, and thus, of keeping American business competitive in the world marketplace.

Templeton told the committee that the U.S. may have won the first round of innovation, but that “the game is changing.” He added the nation runs the risk having the next generation of high-tech companies headquartered elsewhere. Templeton further pointed out that the fraction of GDP devoted to federal support for physical science research is down by a factor of two since 1970, thus adversely affecting innovation in America.

Jackson, a former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, opined that “the health of the innovation ecosystem is in jeopardy.” She also expressed concern about STEM education in the U.S. and about retaining high-caliber talent from abroad. She noted that, in many cases, we train students in the U.S., who then return to their home countries to the benefit of that country rather than the U.S. She further expressed concern about the relative lack of women and minorities in science, and, referencing the landmark Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, asked “what storm do we need to gather to improve the education of women and minorities?”

According to Vest, a former president of MIT, “Use-inspired basic research” is the key to innovation. He also expressed the role of “surprise” in research, noting that “the best way to find out what the future will bring is to invent it.” He, too, supported increased funding for an emphasis on STEM teaching at the K-12 level, noting that making science “come to life by hands-on experience” is the key to motivating young people to study science and to perhaps become scientists.

Witnesses and committee members generally agreed that federal support for basic research had been essential to American innovation, giving us great inventions and businesses, including computers, lasers, the Internet, most of modern medicine. Committee members asked how to fund basic research and STEM teaching in the present political climate of budget cuts and impending sequestration. The prevailing view among thewitnesses was that it is essential to continue funding of basic research and STEM education to retain or regain America’s competitive edge.

In a column published the day of the hearing in Politico, Templeton and Jackson asked whether the U.S. or another country would be at the cusp of the coming digital technological revolution.  The key, they stated, was that the U.S. must rise to meet the coming technological and scientific challenges. However, we cannot do so in light of the coming across-the-board-cuts slated to take effect on March 1. “The United States is at an important crossroads in science. The direction we take in the next few months will be defining,” they wrote in the piece.

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