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Recent Developments: Task Force on American Innovation Calls for Robust Support of Basic Research and STEM Education; UK Budget Plan Maintains Science Funding

Richard M. Jones
Number 108 - October 26, 2010  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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In an October 13 letter to the co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, members of the Task Force on American Innovation urged that “our government must provide robust support for basic research, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, and for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education.”  Among the 42 members of the Task Force are the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society.

In a parallel development, the Government in the United Kingdom last week announced its intention to maintain science funding at current levels for the next four years.

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was established by President Obama in February.  It is co-chaired by a Democrat, Erskine Bowles, Chief of Staff to President Clinton, and Alan Simpson, former Republican Senator from Wyoming.  The Commission, which is advisory only, has 18 members.  Fourteen of these members must approve a report by December 1 that will be sent to the President.  The Commission’s Charter outlines its duties as follows:

“The Commission shall propose recommendations to balance the budget, excluding interest payment on the debt, by 2015. This result is projected to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level once the economy recovers. In addition, the Commission shall propose recommendations to the President that meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending and the gap between the projected revenues and expenditures of the Federal Government.”

There are three working groups within the Commission: a Mandatory Working Group (for programs such as Social Security), a Tax Reform Working Group, and a Discretionary Working Group.  Science spending is discretionary.  The discussion leaders for this nine member working group are Rep. John Spratt, Jr. (D-SC) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). 

The October 13 letter follows:

“Dear Chairmen Bowles and Simpson:

“Among economists, policymakers, and the public, there is little dispute that the fiscal path our nation is following is unsustainable. As representatives of high-tech and other industries, universities, and professional societies, we concur, and we therefore believe it is imperative that our government adopt policies to reduce the budget deficit and stabilize our national debt.

“As you consider recommendations for Congress and the Administration, however, we urge you to recognize the importance of keeping our nation on an innovation path that makes it possible for our economy to grow and our citizens to prosper. Ultimately, the point of fiscal responsibility is to provide a better life for all Americans, especially future generations. And while reducing deficits is necessary for achieving long-term prosperity, it is equally necessary that we continue to make the new investments in science and technology that for more than half a century have provided the foundation for innovation and economic growth in our country.

“We agree with the leadership of the Commission that all parts of the federal budget must be placed on the table for deficit reduction: entitlement spending, tax and revenue policies, and discretionary spending, both defense and nondefense. However, as the Commission examines its options on the spending side, we urge you to differentiate investments that over time will grow the economy, create jobs, and increase federal revenues from programs that may be desirable but provide little if any financial return. When our fiscal house is in order, we should be able to afford both. But it isn’t, and we can’t.

“Members of the Task Force on American Innovation believe that our government, even as it takes necessary steps to reduce deficits, must continue to make investments that will strengthen our economic competitiveness by spurring scientific advancement and improving the quality of our technological workforce. Specifically, our government must provide robust support for basic research, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, and for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education. Revenue policies should also encourage private investment in research and innovation.

“Economic analyses generally attribute more than half of all economic growth in the United States since the end of World War II to technological advances that have driven innovation and productivity. Those advances - such as the laser; the Internet and its companion, the Web; and the large-scale integrated circuit - all had their origins in long-term research, both basic and applied. They were the consequence of federal policies that directly funded long-term research, provided incentives for private investment, and stressed the importance of science and
engineering education.

“For more than half a century the United States led the world in scientific discovery and technological innovation. Our nation’s prowess produced extraordinary economic growth and increased the standard of living of most Americans. Today, a good part of the world has caught up with our scientific competence, and in some cases surpassed it. In the case of K-12 science and mathematics education, we are distinctly second rate. If we do not remedy our deficiencies in the coming decade we run the risk of relegating our nation’s economy to the same
status. Indeed, nations such as China and India are pouring resources into developing their research capacities and their human capital in STEM fields, helping them over the long term to challenge our economic as well as our military leadership.

“We are well aware that you face an enormous challenge. And Congress and the President will face an enormous challenge as they consider your recommendations. We urge you to make recommendations that, over the long run, will enable this generation to leave future generations a legacy not of excessive debt and limited prospects but of renewed technological leadership and economic opportunity.


The Task Force on American Innovation”

A similar effort to reduce Government spending in the United Kingdom has taken place this year.  The Government’s Spending Review (GSR), presented to the Parliament on October 20, sets departmental spending budgets up to 2014-15.  This much anticipated plan is the Government’s response to a reliance on borrowing that last year was one-fourth of all expenditures.   The GSR makes 19%+ reductions in many departmental budgets.   UK scientists were relieved that the Review did not make feared cuts in science funding.

On page 22 of the GSR is a section entitled “Prioritising growth enhancing spending” that states:

“The Government has also prioritised current spending which helps deliver outcomes that support growth, including a strong science and research base, which the private sector would not provide.  For example, it is increasing core funding for schools and expanding adult  apprenticeships, and priortises funding for world class research.”

The following selection from a part of the Plan entitled Science explains:

“To support long term growth, the Government will prioritise support for world class science maintaining spending in cash terms.  The Government will also increase the efficiency of the science budget . . . .  These efficiency savings will be reinvested in science.  A ring-fence will be maintained to ensure continuity of investment in science and research.”

This science funding will remain level during the four years.   Expressed in US currency, it totals $7.3 billion. Yet to be determined are final funding levels for capital expenditures on facilities by the research councils and contributions to international organizations, money for Regional Development Agencies that can be used to finance research parks, and university funding. 

In response to a related Government document released yesterday,  John Brindley of the Institute of Physics stated:

“The National Infrastructure Plan lays out a commitment to invest in the equipment necessary for a science base that can underpin our economic growth, recognising that continued investment in facilities like the Diamond Synchrotron Light Source gives our scientists the very best tools to innovate.

“It is apparent that the Government has listened to the argument for science and agrees that keeping the UK at the forefront of world research has a strong business case. Now, with the introduction of R&D centres, we hope hi-tech business start-ups can grab the baton and use the nation’s intellectual capital to excel in world markets.

“Science is the surest route to growth and, as our politicians have shown the courage to avoid short-term cuts, it is now up to the science community to help the Government deliver the economic growth the nation needs."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics