Some might say the storm has arrived–it’s a question of which category–how about category 5? In 2005, a bipartisan group of Congressmen requested the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to carry out an analysis of America’s status in the new competitive arena of science and technology and make policy recommendations based on their assessment. If American science and technology had problems in competing, could these problems be addressed with national legislation? The NAS analysis was done at a time when the budget for biomedical research had just gone through a period in which the funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main source of biomedical research funds, had been doubled in a five year period (1998-2003); because of the seemingly rosy picture that had emerged for biomedical research (but see below), the report focused primarily on math, engineering and the physical sciences. The 2005 report, completed in less than a year after the request was published and entitled Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future: it projected a dim view of America’s future competitiveness, if major, new investments in science, technology, math and science education were not immediately put in place to change the trajectory that science in America had been on for decades, through policies of national disinvestment in research. The emphasis of the 2005 report was that America had become too disengaged in science and technology and the report had an immediate impact which led directly to congressional passage of the America COMPETES Act of 2007, which stirred debate at both the national and regional levels about how to respond to the challenges facing America in the new global market place. While some new budgetary priorities emerged as a result of the report, the results fell far short of the recommended priority changes in spending and didn’t respond to the sense of urgency conveyed by the NAS report that largely fell on deaf ears. In addition, what little effort was made to actually fund these emergency needs, got downgraded in the economic recession that clouds our future to this day. Few Americans understand that the last thirty years of disinvestment in research and technology have made it far more difficult to recover from the current, serious recession than would otherwise be the case. The 2005 recommendations also pointed out the destructive legislation that found its way into the Patriot Act, with its subsequent impact on visa denial for foreign Ph.D. candidates. This is particularly critical for America, since foreign-born students comprised a big fraction of our doctoral students; getting them to come to our universities and finding ways to keep them here were important components of the NAS plan. Thus, the public reaction to 9/11 has made the challenge in front of us even more difficult and the need for action more urgent.
To Obama’s credit, the American Re-investment and Recovery Act (ARRA) of 2009 at least partially funded some of the recommendations that came out of the 2005 NAS report. However, the two-year period of ARRA’s influence is now coming to an end and no programmatic energy seems available to build on ARRA, so we are likely to slide back into pre-stimulus conditions, rather than continue to move forward. Five years after the NAS committee report, the same committee (consisting of scientists, educators and corporate heads) generated the current report of 2010, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 which attempts to re-evaluate the issues by summarizing what was done and what still lies ahead of us, if we are going to reverse a significant decline in the standard of living for most Americans. The last link provided allows you to visit the NAS website and download a copy of the 100 plus page report as a pdf (for free) or you can buy a book of the report for $18. The central concept that all of us must debate is this: to what degree have middle class income levels stagnated over the past 30 years because businesses have changed their model from the Golden Watch (50 years of company service rather than the certain future of downsizing and corporate buyouts) to the golden parachute (businesses take increases in worker productivity and don’t reward the workers, but shift the corporate wealth to reimburse lavish executive salaries and the value of the company stock?). Alternatively, to what degree have we failed our workers because we are not bringing on new innovative technology jobs that can replace and improve workers compensation and job security? The NAS report focuses exclusively on the latter issue, but we cannot forget or forgive the super capitalism conditions that brought one in seven Americans into poverty.
The report’s center of gravity is that our economy must generate good-paying jobs that rely on high skills and education and that we must stimulate and reward innovation that seeks to generate such jobs. The report emphasizes the fact that over the past few decades investments in science and technology have provided the vast majority of jobs created in our economy, including those created at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. To recover our leadership will require massive investments in how we educate our students in science and engineering, to inspire a new generation of creative, scientific solutions to our problems, while energizing the formation of a new economy, one that takes full advantage of our need to return to scientific and technical innovation within our own borders. The 2010 report emphasizes that we are falling seriously behind from where we once thought we should be. Right now the globalization of our economy heavily favors the Chinese, whose recent wealth, acquired through manufacturing, conforms to the same model that led to our own acquired wealth in the 19th and 20th centuries–that new Chinese wealth is now being invested and re-invested into economic expansion in manufacturing, including the high tech sector of the Chinese and global economy. Right now, China seems to have a lock on manufacturing solar panels and American companies are finding it tough going and hard to raise money to fund their own manufacturing capacity in this young industry. We gave away too much and we lost too much time during the GW Bush administration, whose focus primarily was on the financial sector of our economy and the privatization of government agencies. The culture of our country has become financialized and far too much attention is given to using money to make money, often by the same deceptive methods that led to our economic meltdown. If you want to read an alarming story, the NYT recently reported on the difficulty that American solar panel companies are having getting started and competing with the Chinese.
One section of the report provides factoid summaries that, by themselves, should ring alarm bells or evoke disgust that we should ever have let ourselves get so far behind, particularly since we seem to get politically distracted by thirty years of cultural wars. As I read each factoid in the report, I couldn’t stop, as each new summary seemed more telling than its predecessor, though there are many more in the publication. Here are a few (the numbers at the end are the references which can be obtained from the pdf article).
- Thirty years ago, ten percent of California’s general fund went to higher education and three percent to prisons. Today, nearly eleven percent goes to prisons and eight percent to higher education.1
- China is now second in the world in its publication of biomedical research articles, having recently surpassed Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France, Canada and Spain.2
- The United States now ranks 22nd among the world’s nations in the density of broadband Internet penetration and 72nd in the density of mobile telephony subscriptions.3
- In 2009, 51 percent of United States patents were awarded to non-United States companies.4
- The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th in quality of mathematics and science education.5
- Of Wal-Mart’s 6,000 suppliers, 5,000 are in China.6
- There are sixteen energy companies in the world with larger reserves than the largest United States company.7
- IBM’s once promising PC business is now owned by a Chinese company.8
- The legendary Bell Laboratories is now owned by a French company.9
- Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. (computer manufacturing) employs more people than the worldwide employment of Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Intel and Sony combined.10
- Only four of the top ten companies receiving United States patents last year were United States companies.12
- United States consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the government devotes to energy R&D.13
- In 2000 the number of foreign students studying the physical sciences and engineering in United States graduate schools for the first time surpassed the number of United States students.15
- Federal funding of research in the physical sciences as a fraction of GDP fell by 54 percent in the 25 years after 1970. The decline in engineering funding was 51 percent.16
- Manufacturing employment in the U.S. computer industry is now lower than when the first personal computer was built in 1975.18
- In the 2009 rankings of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation the U.S. was in sixth place in global innovation-based competitiveness, but ranked 40th in the rate of change over the past decade.19
- China has now replaced the United States as the world’s number one high-technology exporter.20
- According to the ACT College Readiness report, 78 percent of high school graduates did not meet the readiness benchmark levels for one or more entry-level college courses in mathematics, science, reading and English.64
On and on it goes as the list grows larger with no entries in which we are number one, unless you want to include our per capita expenditures on health care or the fact that we have a deficient k-12 education system in science, with many science and math teachers who lack accreditation in the discipline. Yet, we spend more per student on education than any other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) country, but we continue to fall behind in math and science. Are teachers are the problem? I say parents are the problem combined with a popular culture that downplays science and technology, while emphasizing pop cultural icons. The problem is our modern culture. Perhaps it will take further erosion of our standard of living before science can be implemented as it was when Sputnik was first launched in 1957. As the committee says in their report “The United States appears to be on a course that will lead to a declining, not growing, standard of living for our children and grandchildren.”
The committee’s top recommendation is to generate 10,000 new teachers trained in math and science and get them out into the k-12 school systems to benefit the students. Move American students to the best students in science and math education in the world. Also proposed is to “Strengthen the skills of 250,000 current teachers by such actions as subsidizing the achievement of master’s degrees (in science, mathematics, or engineering)
and participation in workshops, and create a world-class mathematics and science curriculum available for voluntary adoption by local school districts throughout the nation.”
You can’t have well-trained science teachers without increased scientific research in the universities that train them, so the committee supports the doubling of math and science research expenditures over a seven year period. Although the committee’s proposal was attempting to emulate the doubling of the NIH budget, those of us funded through NIH have discovered that after the doubling, GW Bush constrained the growth of NIH thereafter to an annual rate of 1% and today, the budget of NIH is roughly where it would have been without the period of doubling, but maintained on the traditional growth rate of 6% per annum. In other words,the NIH budget is now as imperiled as it was in the 1990s, with hundreds of quality research grants that go unfunded and our research enterprise reduced to grant writing. Some relief came from ARRA, but that is ending now and we will soon back to the days of less than 10% funding in many areas of NIH and a very bleak picture for research opportunities–even in biomedical research. The highest level of % GDP funding for NIH took place in the med 1960s and once the “threats” of Sputnik were deemed to be over-rated, funding for basic science research, even in medically related fields began to decline as a % of GDP. Obama has sworn to reverse the decline in research emphasis, but it is not clear whether the climate we are currently in will allow any new priorities to be implemented. The election we are facing could well postpone, if not outright kill any new initiatives to increase the scientific competitiveness of our American enterprise.
Those that remain in the financial sector probably feel OK about the country. These financial giants are not investing in rebuilding America, but seem content with continuity in creating new financial bubbles. In addition, they like the fact that America has a very big military and can protect the country and themselves should significant problems arise. So, the fact that they are making big bucks, means that nothing serious has to be done, except that Obama probably has to go, since he is the one force that meddles too much with the industry. The only healthy way to solve America’s highly risky future is to take over the banks, force them to make loans that help rebuild the country, provide incentives for American firms to keep jobs in America and expand the technological and innovative side of their manufacturing. If a company decides to relocate, then give the workers of that company the opportunity, with low interest Federal loans, to buy the company and continue supporting the jobs. After all, we allow leveraged buyouts by rich people, why not leverage buyouts for the workers. This is not a serious breach with the policies we have in place today, it’s just adding a little more force to the arm twisting. Yes, you could describe this as an extension of socialism, but does anyone believe that government support of big business with tax breaks and subsidies is not a form of socialism. Are we that afraid of a word, especially when it’s something we already have in play?
What almost no one understands, including those that vigorously support or oppose the injection of more science into our educational and research objectives is that science itself is politically divisive. The right-wing of this country, including many in the financial sector, believe that too much influence that comes from science introduces a fifth leg of the governing stool and that it has the potential to completely swamp the politicians who want to remain in control and keep America as a playground for the wealthy. We have met the enemy and it is us!
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