Competing in a 21st Century World

Congressman Frank Wolf
Congressman Frank Wolf
Republican member of Congress, representing Virginia’s 10th District. He's serving in his 13th House term.

Wolf chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice, and Commerce, which has jurisdiction over the budgets of NASA, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.

By Frank Wolf

In my role as chairman of the House Science-State-Justice-Commerce Appropriations subcommittee, which controls the budget of NASA, the National Science Foundation, the White House Office of Science and Technology policy and NOAA, I have met over the past year with groups that advocate for business, education, and research and development. What I heard from them is that America is facing unprecedented competition from countries such as China and India and our role as the global innovation leader is being challenged. I was alarmed to learn that three key measuring sticks show America on a downward slope: patents awarded to American scientists; papers published by American scientists, and Nobel prizes won by American scientists.

To help find solutions to reverse those alarming statistics, I included a directive in last year's supplemental spending package in Congress for the Department of Commerce to work with groups such as the Council on Competitiveness, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Physical Society to hold a National Summit on Competitiveness in Washington to evaluate America's future in science and innovation. The conference took place in December and helped to elevate this issue in the national consciousness.

In speaking with the nation's science and engineering community, I also was troubled to learn about the shortage of math, science and engineering students in the United States. According to the National Academy of Engineers, China awards 300,000 engineering degrees per year, more than four times the 70,000 engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. I was surprised to learn that while the number of undergraduate degrees awarded has increased 14 percent over the last 10 years, the number has declined in fields such as engineering and mathematics. The number of mathematics degrees declined by 16 percent over the last 10 years.

The National Academies' report Rising Above the Gathering Storm released last October also makes it clear that we must vastly improve K-12 math and science education. Average student test scores show a declining percentage of proficiency over the course of the student's academic career. That means that there are a higher number of 4th graders who are proficient in math and science than there are 12th graders. That's a disturbing trend.

Another troubling fact is that three out of four 4th-grade math and science teachers in the U.S. do not have a specialization in those subjects. And students from low income communities are far less likely to have teachers certified in the subject they teach. Compounding this situation is the fact that more than half of the current math and science teachers are expected to retire in the next five years. If teachers aren't confident in the subject matter they are teaching, it's nearly impossible for them to inspire another generation to study that subject.

Congress has taken notice of these developments. To respond to the challenge of reversing this math/science education deficit, I introduced legislation with Rep. Vern Ehlers (MI) and Rep. Sherry Boehlert (NY) last April aimed at attracting more students to math, science, engineering and related fields. The Math and Science Incentive Act would forgive interest on undergraduate student loans for math, science and engineering majors who agree to work five years in their field upon graduation.

A few months later, the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved legislation to reauthorize the nation's higher education programs–the College Access and Opportunity Act. The bill includes a number of provisions to improve mathematics and science education, including: establishing Mathematics and Science Honors Scholarships for students pursuing a degrees in physical, life, or computer sciences, mathematics, and engineering, repaying up to $5,000 of the interest accrued on student loans for math, science and engineering majors who agree to work for five years in their field of study–similar to the proposal in my legislation, and awarding grants to Mathematics and Science Education Coordinating Councils, which are composed of education, business, and community leaders, to implement reforms to achieve better teacher recruitment and training, increased student academic achievement, and reduced need for remediation at all levels.

Congress also recently approved the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grants (National SMART Grants). The bill provides grants of up to $4,000 to Pell Grant eligible students in their third and fourth academic year of undergraduate education at a four year, degree granting institution of higher education. The student must be pursuing a major in the physical, life, or computer sciences, math, technology, or engineering (or a foreign language). The student must also have a grade point average of at least 3.0.

But it will take more than Congress passing a few pieces of legislation. The national crisis in innovation demands a dedicated national response. Remembering how the nation was mobilized to compete for the space frontier after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in the late 1950's, I wrote President Bush last year urging him to embrace this issue. I asked that he dramatically increase our nation's innovation budget–federal basic research and development–over the next decade to ensure U.S. economic leadership in the 21st century. Many in the scientific community have told me now that at that time, they didn't think there was a realistic chance of that happening.

But sitting in the House chamber on January 31 and listing to the President's State of the Union address, I was thrilled to hear him lay out the American Competitiveness Initiative–a bold proposal which marks an exciting new chapter in America's history as the global innovation leader. This ambitious strategy will increase federal investment in critical research, ensure that the United States continues to lead the world in opportunity and innovation, and provide American children with a strong foundation in math and science.

The American Competitiveness Initiative commits $5.9 billion in FY 2007, and more than $136 billion over 10 years, to increase investments in research and development (R&D), strengthen education, and encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. The centerpiece of the plan is the President's strong commitment to double over 10 years investment in key federal agencies that support basic research programs in the physical sciences and engineering–the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology. I share the President's commitment and will be working this year in the appropriations process to fund this effort.

The President's proposal can help catch and keep the interest of our nation's children in math and science, while preparing them for the global competition we face in the 21st century. I applaud the President for his commitment to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced placement courses in math and science. His goal of bringing 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms will help more students understand the connection between the classroom and today's global marketplace. America is a land of opportunity and providing true opportunity involves helping students who struggle with math–just like the President proposed–because top skill jobs translate into high wage jobs.

About the time in early 2005 that many of the nation's science-related programs were added to my appropriations subcommittee jurisdiction, I also saw the film Longitude, which involves the successful 40 year effort of 18th century clockmaker John Harrison to solve the elusive problem of measuring longitude at sea. In 1714, the British Parliament had offered the Longitude Prize, a generous reward to anyone who solved the problem, and Harrison devoted his life to that solution. Thousands of sailors perished at sea before Harrison's triumph changed history.

Similar to the British effort in solving the longitude problem and the U.S. effort in space after Sputnik, America is poised to mobilize again to ensure that our country remains the world leader in innovation. The challenge is before us all–public policymakers, the scientific community and the American people alike. Knowing the can-do attitude Americans possess, I believe our future as the solid world leader in innovation is again looking bright.


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

March 2006 (Volume 15, Number 3)

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Baltimore Hosts Largest Physics Meeting of 2006
APS Membership Hits Record High in 2005
Physicists Rally Around Efforts to Promote S&T Initiatives
JLab, Brookhaven Hope for Turnaround After Severe Budget Cuts Last Year
Thousands of APS Members Respond to Funding Alerts
New Report Examines Management and Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology
Featured PhysTec University
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Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Washington Dispatch
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Physics and Technology Forefronts
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science