At Competitiveness Summit, 50 Minds Agree: The Onus Rests Upon Bush
BY RICHARD McCORMACK firstname.lastname@example.org
Business executives, university presidents, a handful of Bush administration cabinet members and Republican legislators gathered in Washington on Dec. 6 to make the case that the U.S. innovation engine is sputtering and must be reinvigorated soon.
The 50 or so people asked to participate in the invitation-only "Competitiveness Summit" agreed that the United States is facing a national challenge maintaining its technological superiority. "One thing I heard today at this conference from all attendees is that our country is slipping into a crisis mode relative to our ability to innovate," said Jim Berges, recently retired CEO of Emerson. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee, said: "Today was a virtual intellectual love-in. We're all singing from the same page. We all recognize the importance of further investment in basic research and preparing the workforce for the future."
Added Richard Templeton, president and CEO of Texas Instruments: "We must start addressing [these issues] now."
The summit, a congressionally funded event held in the Commerce Department's main auditorium, did not include participation from R&D executives, labor leaders, K-12 educators or Democrats. "This was not intended to be a town hall [meeting]," said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who was in charge of organizing the event. "We didn't want representatives from every area of American life. The idea was to get business leaders together to talk about problems they are having in meeting competition from overseas."
The primary target for the event was President Bush and those in his administration responsible for the federal budget. Organizers met in the morning with OMB director Josh Bolton. At a press conference afterwards, they were asked about Bolton's response to their appeals for more money. "He gets it -- he understands it," said Boehlert. "He recognizes the importance of what we're talking about -- greater investment in the science enterprise. He also challenged us to come up with some potential sources of revenue to finance the program."
Organizers thought it would be better not to include Democrats in the event, even though Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) is said to have expressed interest in attending. The House Republican who provided the funding wanted a clear message to be sent to the president by business people and members of his own party, and did not want it politicized in any way by the presence of Democrats, who have recently issued their own innovation agenda.
The members of Congress in attendance said they will be able to judge the effectiveness of the event by President Bush's budget request that will be submitted to them in late January or early February. They said Bush should make R&D a federal government priority -- and that he should talk about it in his State of the Union Address. They will be disappointed if he does not.
"We're talking about initially under $10 billion to do a whole range of things that enhance our competitive position," said Boehlert. Such a sum would provide funding for basic research programs at the Energy Department, the National Science Foundation, NASA and other agencies involved in the physical sciences -- math, engineering, physics, computation and chemistry. "I will be the most surprised guy in the world and the most disappointed if we don't get a nice increase in NSF spending next year," Boehlert said following the press conference in an interview with Manufacturing & Technology News. "This is in many respects, petty cash to the guys [in the Pentagon] across the [Potomac] river. This is really important because this is a national security issue."
If it is a national security issue, then why hasn't the military addressed it? Boehlert was asked. "It beats the hell out of me," he replied. "Ask them. I'm not their biggest fan."
Can Congress reallocate some Pentagon money into the NSF account? "I'd love to do it," Boehlert replied. "You tell me how I can get it."
When asked what a reporter should ask when the president's budget is submitted to Congress without much of an increase in funding for the physical sciences, Rep. Ehlers said: "You probably shouldn't ask me." Why not? "Because it might not be printable."
Boehlert called on the private sector to start lobbying members of Congress and the administration on beefing up support for the physical sciences and the development of the next generation of engineers and scientists. "I point out that when lobbyists knock on our door repeatedly -- and everyone has a lobbyist -- do you think they come in and say we need to invest in science? That is not what happens in the real world."
Ehlers agreed. "We need action," he said. "We need lobbying and education across this country to get the point across that the world has changed and we can't simply plod along losing jobs to other countries and say, 'Well, we can nip and tuck and we'll get there.' No, we have to make major changes..."
Those in attendance agreed that the last thing that's needed now is another report describing the problem. But the group did produce a statement outlining the policies needed to turn the situation around. The six-page "National Summit on Competitiveness: Investing in U.S. Innovation" document is located at http://www.usinnovation.org/pdf/ National_Summit_Statement.pdf.
Statements made by the invited guests at the Competitiveness Summit: For
Click here: http://www.manufacturingnews.com/news/05/1222/summittranscript.html.
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