May 17, 2004    Volume 11, No. 10-

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Increasing Worry Is Expressed Over Paltry Commitment To Funding Physical Sciences And Engineering Research


The innovation engine that has fueled the U.S. economy over the past two decades is sputtering and requires a large infusion of federal funds, argue some of the most prominent figures in American industry and academia. The United States is at a "tipping point" in which funding for the physical sciences and engineering has reached a nadir, says the newly formed "Task Force on the Future of American Innovation."

"Perhaps the most significant [event] that has taken place in the last few years, which has been portrayed by the press as offshoring or outsourcing, is the inclusion of three billion people from India, China and Eastern Europe into the world's economic system," said Craig Barrett, president and CEO of Intel Corp., speaking on behalf of the task force. "You only get half of the world's population to join the free economic system once in the history of mankind. That is a pretty big tipping point whether you recognize it or not. The issue is, does the United States choose to compete going forward?"

The new entrants into the world economy, as well as traditional U.S. competitors, are investing heavily in their graduate education systems in the physical sciences, math and engineering

Foreign students no longer feel the need to travel to the United States for their graduate education; and many of those who are studying in the United States return home when they're done.

Fewer American-born boys and girls are pursuing studies in the physical sciences and engineering. Moreover, federal investment in the physical sciences and engineering research has declined by 37 percent as a percentage of GDP since 1970, task force members point out.

America's elected representatives have ignored investments in the physical sciences and engineering for decades, say members of the new task force. Economic growth is dependent upon that investment.

"The American body politic believes that American technology is preeminent and will always be preeminent," Richard Smalley, the 1996 Nobel Laureate in chemistry and director of Rice University's Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory, told a small press gathering at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "What we're here to tell you is that we're not on a path where we will be preeminent for much longer. We're in a situation of decay and the time that it will become very clear to the body politic is when the economy and the wellbeing of this country gets to be substantially reduced because the high-tech industries are being developed offshore. We're telling you, we've got a problem. It takes about 20 years to build a scientist or engineer. If you want to wait to see that it's a perfectly great problem, you're going to have a hole that is going to take 20 years to dig out of."

The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, organized by the Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America (ASTRA), includes dozens of individuals and organizations that are funding an advertising and lobbying campaign. The group is calling on Congress and the administration to make a much stronger commitment to basic research in the physical sciences and engineering.

"The rest of the world is competing in this space," said Barrett. "The rest of the world has targeted programs for competition and investment in this space. The United States needs to decide if it will follow or compete to keep its preeminent position. We can build on our current position of strength or let it atrophy. The choice is ours."

Task force members believe that Congress is more interested in funding pork projects of little or no societal merit and industries that are no longer fueling economic growth and jobs. Farmers receive $30 billion a year in subsidies, Barrett pointed out. "I've just now angered all of the Midwestern senators and congressmen, but agricultural subsidies are a diminishing return for us from an investment standpoint," he said. "I would like to see some of the 19th Century support shifted to the 21st Century industries." Within the $250-billion Transportation Bill being debated in Congress, there is a proposal to build a $225-million bridge to serve an island with 15 inhabitants. That money should be "pushed into the physical sciences," said Barrett.

Intel spends about $5 billion a year on R&D -- or about the same amount the federal government spends on basic research in the physical sciences and engineering. "The mere idea that a single company in this country spends as much on R&D as the federal government spends on basic R&D in the physical sciences suggests the nature of the problem," Barrett told the reporters. "We're not talking about corporate welfare. We're talking about supporting the basic research laboratories in our research universities; supporting the students and faculty; creating the ideas that will make us competitive going forward."

To turn the situation around, the U.S. should be investing not $5 billion a year in the physical sciences but about $30 billion a year, said Smalley. He proposed that some of this funding come from a tax on gasoline. A five-cent-per-gallon tax on transportation fuel would raise $10 billion a year. "We've had a run-up of gas prices of 25-cents per gallon in the last couple of months and people are not parking their SUVs any more," he said. "The amount of money we need to transform the physical sciences and engineering in this country is not all that big. Of course we can do it," he said in response to questions from skeptical reporters about funding sources given tax cuts, the war in Iraq and federal budget deficits.

"The worst thing that could possibly happen is we could create a new Sputnik generation of scientists and a cornucopia of new technologies that would be the basis of prosperity for ourselves and the world," Smalley added.

Attracting the next generation of Americans to the physical sciences will require the creation of an "inspiring mission," said Smalley, the "father" of nanotechnology and inventor of the carbon "buckeyball," the third elemental form of carbon (after graphite and diamond). The inspirational mission he has in mind is reducing the industrial world's dependence on fossil fuels and replacing them on a massive scale with a low-cost alternative energy source. "To be blunt, we have to go find a new oil," he said.

This new energy source will be created from the "garden of the physical sciences and engineering and will take incredible revolutionary discoveries; things that might well deserve the title of miracles," he said. "Luckily, miracles do happen. I've been in the physical sciences long enough to see many of these miracles: lasers, superconductors, the whole IC story of the last 45 years is one miracle after another. So miracles do happen and generally come out of this enterprise of the garden of physical sciences. That garden is not big enough in the United States. It is not watered well enough. It is not cultivated well enough. If we really thought this was a serious enterprise we would treat it in a different way."

Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness and a member of the task force, said the effort must move beyond reports, studies and congressional testimony. The country must "take action on this fundamental building block of our national innovation system on which our standard of living and security depend."

The group has paid for an $8,900 full-page ad in Roll Call, the newspaper that covers Congress. It plans to place four more ads in Roll Call over the course of the coming months. It will also place ads in newspapers in congressional districts of members who are on the important appropriations committees for funding the physical sciences and engineering.

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