Keep America Strong by Investing in Basic Scientific Research

By Congressman Frank Wolf
April 2010

Most Americans think the United States will have a smaller role in the world economy in the coming years, and many believe that while the 20th century may have been the “American Century,” the 21st century will belong to China, according to recent national polling data.

This is not good news, and we must act now to ensure that our country isn’t left behind as our nation grapples with a struggling economy, unprecedented debt and increased global competition.

Among the fundamental steps that need to be taken to get our nation back on track is to invest in basic scientific research, a proven economic engine that has led to innovation and prosperity for the nation. The seeds of this research that are planted today will yield the profitable innovations of tomorrow.

Since World War II, 50 percent of U.S. economic growth has been attributable to science and technology.  Every dollar invested in basic research translates into $40 in domestic growth, according to a study by the Council for Chemical Research. The Internet, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and global positioning satellites are just a few examples of the inventions that were developed as a result of federal investment in basic research.

Over the last decade, I have become increasingly concerned about our country’s lag in innovation and manufacturing. I authored language creating the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” Commission, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, whose report coalesced business community support for science funding in 2006.

The report offered four recommendations:

  • Increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education.
  • Sustain and strengthen the nation’s traditional commitment to long-term basic research that has the potential to be transformational to maintain the flow of new ideas that fuel the economy, provide security and enhance the quality of life.
  • Make the United States the most attractive setting in which to study and perform research so that we can develop, recruit and retain the best and the brightest students, scientists and engineers from within the United States and throughout the world.
  • Ensure that the United States is the premier place in the world to innovate; invest in downstream activities such as manufacturing and marketing; and create high-paying jobs based on innovation by such actions as modernizing the patent system, realigning tax policies to encourage innovation and ensuring affordable broadband access.

In August 2007, Congress responded to this landmark report by passing the America COMPETES Act with bipartisan support. The legislation authorized a doubling of funding for key federal agencies by investing in basic research in the physical sciences. It also strengthened science, math, technology and engineering programs. Scientists at those agencies–the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology–are engaged in transformational research to develop solutions to some of the nation’s most pressing challenges.

Americans must not forget the lesson of Sputnik more than 50 years ago. Following the former Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, America faced a serious challenge as we confronted the reality that our nation might not be the world’s scientific and technological leader. The American people responded to the challenge of President Kennedy with bold initiatives, pumping unprecedented amounts of money into science, leading to a boom in innovation that resulted in the development of semiconductor electronics, high-speed computers, and lasers.

Nevertheless, countries like China and India have copied the U.S. innovation strategy, spurring economic growth in their nations and challenging our hard-won position as a global economic leader, a post that once made us the envy of the world, especially in the area of high technology.

We cannot afford to continue to lag behind our competitors.  Case in point: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) most recent 2006 report measuring science and math literacy among 15-year-olds internationally shows that the U.S. has a long way to go in educating its students in these critical areas.

According to the results, U.S. students ranked 21st in science and 25th in math among the 30 OECD members, lower than they did in 2003. Furthermore, the students were outscored by students in Korea and Finland, which boasted the top scores on the 2006 test, respectively.

There’s no doubt that the nation is facing an unprecedented set of challenges, including national security concerns ranging from energy to health to economic and physical security. Quick fixes aren’t enough. The American people need to know that their government leaders are employing a long-term view on how to address those challenges. And investing in basic scientific research is the best place to begin.

Congressman Frank Wolf is a Republican from northern Virginia, which is home to hundreds of high-tech and defense companies that are on the cutting-edge of science and technology. He is the lead Republican on the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds NASA, NSF, the White Office of Science and Technology, the Department of Commerce and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

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Congressman Frank Wolf