Bush proposes Competitiveness Initiative

Physicists and Congress respond enthusiastically.

President George W. Bush gave his 2006 State of the Union address to the nation on January 31st, and took the opportunity to announce two major new science and technology initiatives. The efforts are aimed at combating growing economic competition from countries such as India and China; maintaining US status as a world leader in technological innovation; and breaking US dependency on Middle Eastern oil.

Bush’s proposed “American Competitiveness Initiative” is a ten year, $136 billion undertaking that would double the federal commitment to basic scientific research in the physical sciences and train tens of thousands of new math and science teachers. This would increase spending on federal R&D next year by nearly $6 billion, a level more than 50% higher than in 2001. The budgets of the NSF, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and NIST’s core programs would double over ten years with $50 billion in new funding.

Physics FundingBush also announced the Advanced Energy Initiative-a 22% increase in clean-energy research-at the Department of Energy (DOE), to push for breakthroughs in automobile fuel and electrical generation, in order to free the US from what Bush termed an unhealthy "addiction" to oil. The issue of competitiveness has gained prominence among scientists and Congressional leaders since last fall, thanks to an R&D benchmarks report released a year ago by the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, which first caught the attention of policy makers with its warning of a pending national crisis.

October 2005 saw the release of a National Academies report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.

The report listed several “worrisome indicators” that the US was losing its global competitive edge and proposed numerous specific actions the federal government can take to ensure the country’s global leadership through the 21st century. In a January 11 speech to the US Chamber of Commerce, former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card called the National Academies report "compelling," although he cautioned that the report's recommendations would need to be considered in context of federal budget constraints.

Last December, a National Summit on Competitiveness was held that further made the case that the federal government should be investing more in R&D in the physical sciences, math and engineering, and education in these fields at all levels. In response, the APS Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics (FIAP) sent out a member alert just prior to Bush’s address, urging FIAP members to write to the White House asking the President to include the issue of competitiveness and innovation in his speech.

Congress responded with a flurry of legislation that incorporates many similar features to Bush’s proposed initiatives. APS President John Hopfield released a statement expressing strong support for bipartisan legislation submitted to the US Senate that would substantially increase federal investments in physical science research and education.

The three bills lumped together under the umbrella title "Protecting America's Competitive Edge" (PACE) would also provide larger tax incentives for industry to invest in R&D, and would establish a new class of student visas for doctoral candidates studying in the fields of math, engineering, technology and science. S.2197 focuses on energy, S.2198 addresses education, and S.2199 is a finance bill that would double the federal R&D tax credit, provide an employee education tax credit and support the development ofscience parks.

Hopfield noted that apart from biomedicine supported by the National Institutes of Health, basic research activities in the rest of American science has declined over the last 20 years. “On this issue, we must set political partisanship aside and work together to get the job done,” said Hopfield. “Our future depends on it.” But he emphasized that the PACE bill merely authorizes the federal government to take action. "What we must do now is to put teeth into the legislation, by appropriating funds and enacting laws that actually carry out the mandates called for." Other similar legislation has been proposed, both in the Senate and the US House of Representatives. See the text box below for a full list.