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FYI Number 122: August 16, 2005

Science Committee Hearing on "The Innovation Challenge"

"Today we are challenged as at no time in the past by other nations eager to succeed. I wish them every success except the kind that comes at our own expense." - William Brody, Johns Hopkins University

House Science Committee members listened as three "true captains of industry," as Committee Chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) called them, offered their views and recommendations on how the U.S. can remain a global leader in science, technology and innovation. Boehlert referred to the July 21 hearing as a "love-in," as the witnesses and committee members generally agreed on the importance of the issue and the actions needed. He spoke of the need to "make sure all of Washington understands what's at stake," and was pleased that two members of the House Appropriations Committee, John Culberson (R-TX) and Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), attended the hearing.

In his prepared testimony, Johns Hopkins University President William Brody set the stage with the following comments: "It looks as though the innovation pipeline is slowly being squeezed dry.... [W]e are losing the skills race" and "are beginning to lose our preeminence in discovery as well." All three witnesses agreed that attention must be focused on what Brody termed "two urgent priorities:" education and basic research funding. They called for improved K-12 education in math and science, financial incentives to encourage undergraduates to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and national policies that would attract and retain the "best and brightest" minds from around the world. A sound primary and secondary education system with an emphasis on science and math is "first and most important," said John Morgridge, Chairman of Cisco Systems, Incorporated: "Education is the foundation.... All innovation comes from it; it is the engine of economic growth."

The witnesses also concurred on the importance of increasing funding for long-term, high-risk fundamental research. Brody called for a renewed commitment to double the NSF budget over the next five years and for restoring DARPA's long-term focus. The federal investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP "peaked 40 years ago," he pointed out. Morgridge recommended making broadband connectivity available to all Americans, ensuring intellectual property rights, reforming the patent system, and expanding the R&D tax credit. Nicholas Donofrio, IBM's Sr. Vice President for Technology and Manufacturing, said that while we are entering a new era of interconnectivity, globalization, and a transition toward a service economy, we are still using metrics developed for the industrial revolution. We do not yet know how to develop metrics for innovation, he said, but "no one else has figured out how to, either." Whoever determines the right metrics and implements the right incentives, he stated, "can be the leader." Both Donofrio and Brody also cited recommendations of a December 2004 report from the Council on Competitiveness's National Innovation Initiative, which Brody co-chaired. The report, "Innovate American: Thriving in a World of Challenge and Change," can be purchased on-line at http://www.compete.org/ and the executive summary can be viewed for no charge.

Referring to a roundtable discussion held in June by House Democrats (see FYI #121), Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) noted that it is "not clear" whether the U.S. has a shortage or surplus of scientists and engineers and there is "no accurate way to predict future demand." These are "difficult issues that go beyond simple solutions" such as increasing R&D funding or training more S&T workers, he said. Given that companies can employ high-tech workers in other countries for lower wages, "what kind of skills," he asked, "will let U.S. scientists and engineers differentiate themselves?" Donofrio said that "students must be prepared to be innovators," and Morgridge commented that "creativity may not be as transferrable geographically" as some might think. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) added later in the discussion that creativity "is one of our biggest aces in the hole" to counter lower wages in other countries. Brody also thought that wages for highly trained workers in other nations would rise rapidly "to equilibrate."

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) questioned whether the need to seek "the best and brightest" from around the world was "a cop-out" because the U.S. was unable to adequately prepare domestic students and attract them to STEM careers. Brody replied, "we are in a global competition for talent," and Boehlert added, "you've got to do both." Later Donofrio remarked that one problem was that not enough teachers are adequately trained in math and science; "we need better math and science teachers." The best and brightest "can't afford to teach," Boehlert said. He mentioned the Robert Noyce scholarship for service program that would, he said, if properly funded, provide scholarships for college juniors and seniors in STEM fields in return for several years of teaching after receiving a degree. Concerns were expressed about a societal culture that does not appreciate teachers and education; Rep. Al Green (D-TX) described seeing parents miss a PTA meeting to attend a football game, and noted that professional athletes are paid millions while teachers are underpaid. "If we truly want to leave no child behind," he said, we have to "leave no teacher behind."

The tone of the discussion changed when several members challenged the industry representatives about what Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) called the "inherent tension" companies face between doing what is best for American workers and making a profit for stockholders by outsourcing jobs to cheaper labor. "In order for IBM to be the asset you would like it to be here in the U.S.," Donofrio stated, it "has to be competitive" on a global basis. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said the "globalist view of big business" was not comforting to someone who is "looking out for the American people." But Donofrio said global competitiveness helps IBM stay healthy in the U.S. and is what has "allowed us to continue to increase employment in this country" in recent years.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3094

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