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New Threat to American Competiveness Discussed at Senate Hearing

Richard M. Jones
Number 130 - October 12, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“Success takes time,” Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said at the outset of a September 19 hearing entitled “Five Years of the America COMPETES Act: Progress, Challenges, and Next Steps.”  The two-hour hearing heard from five witnesses, one of whom raised a troubling new development posing a threat to America’s future competitiveness.

One of these witnesses was Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation, who was instrumental in the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report released by the National Academies in November 2005.   The report received immediate acclaim and attention and has remained a much-cited prescription for what the United States should do to remain technologically competitive.  The report was the foundation on which many of the provisions of the original America COMPETES Act were based and which was signed into law by President Bush in August 2007.    President Obama signed a new version of the COMPETES legislation into law in January 2011. Among the act’s 68-pages of provisions were authorization levels for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy basic research programs for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013.

After commenting on the progress that has, and has not, been made since the Gathering Storm report was released, Augustine alerted the committee to a new concern:

“an altogether new problem has arisen since the Gathering Storm report was prepared. This new challenge deals with an issue that, to the best of my knowledge, was unforeseen by any of our committee’s members -- most assuredly not by myself.

“We had noted in our report that our nation’s great research universities were among America’s most significant assets in the crusade to create jobs -- along with our freedom and our free enterprise system. It is noteworthy that it is our universities that produce the talent we need to compete as well as much of the knowledge. Even today, according to The Times of London, the top five universities in the entire world and 18 of the top 25 are located in the United States.

“But these same institutions are now endangered. The share of their operating expenses funded by state governments is rapidly declining and now represent the lowest fraction of such resources in a quarter of a century. In three decades state financial support of higher education as a fraction of personal income has, on average, declined by 71 percent. One result is, for example, that at the highly regarded public universities in California, tuition and fees have grown by 240 percent in the past dozen years. Throughout the nation tuition and fees at public universities have increased by an average of 85 percent over the past decade, net of financial aid.

“Faculty have on average seen their salaries decline by 1.2 percent during the past year -- not including the effect of inflation; layoffs are not uncommon among junior faculty; and teaching loads are increasing. This reduction in state support is, in effect, privatizing our public universities - with much of the cost being shifted to the students - thereby fundamentally threatening the continuation of the American Dream. On the other hand, it may be appropriate for our universities to reconsider their own priorities and even their raison d’être. According to USA Today, major college football coaches receive an average compensation of $1.47 million per year, ‘a jump of nearly 55 percent in six seasons.’”

Augustine described how foreign universities have been successful in attracting talented U.S. professors and how technology has changed the way in which students learn.  He concluded:

“It seems foregone that America’s universities are going to have to remake themselves, and how well they are able to do so will have either a profound positive or negative impact on America’s overall competitiveness. As this occurs, it will be of the utmost importance for government at all levels to recognize this challenge and, among other things, provide adequate funding of basic research; appropriately fund operating budgets; pay the true cost of research grants; increase need-based financial aid; and enable private universities to continue to build their endowments.”

The shortfall in the level of federal S&T funding that the Gathering Storm report called for, and which the  COMPETES legislation authorized was, not surprisingly, a topic of much discussion during this hearing.  Rockefeller referred to this in his opening comments:

“The 2007 act authorized the doubling of funding for the National Science Foundation, major research accounts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science within seven years.  Unfortunately, Congress did not follow its own direction with appropriations, slowing the doubling period to 15 years.  The 2010 reauthorization attempted to find some middle ground with an 11-year doubling path, but, again, appropriations and the President’s request levels have not followed, pushing the doubling out to 18-years.  Still, these science agencies have fared better than many and are better off on funding than they would have been without this effort.  I will continue to push for full funding of these vital research and education activities.”

Jeffrey Furman of Boston University and the National Bureau of Economic Research came to a similar conclusion:

“The achievements of the legislation can be reasonably viewed as substantial from the perspective of analyzing what may have happened in the absence of the legislation. Key achievements that were enabled by the Acts include important expansions to the power of Federal agencies to implement innovation prize programs, the creation of Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), funding for the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), substantial funding for programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the harder-to-measure-enabling of agencies to implement programs consistent with the spirit of the COMPETES Acts. . .

Of note,

“perhaps most importantly, the maintenance of a tenuous but consistent bipartisan consensus to preserve the funding of physical science and engineering programs even in the face of budgetary difficulties of historical proportions. It is reasonable to conclude that, absent the authorization of funding for science and engineering programs called for by the COMPETES Acts, the level of commitment to these areas would have waned over the past half-decade that U.S. leadership in science and innovation would have suffered as a consequence.”

Regarding the budget doubling path that was recommended in the Gathering Storm Report and which was a central feature of the legislation, Furman concluded:

“the current rate of funding increase for physical sciences and engineering is not appreciably greater than it was prior to the COMPETES legislation.

“Whether one views this as a success or not depends substantially on the perspective that one takes: Federal investment in physical science and engineering has not kept pace with the specifications of either COMPETES Act; however, in contrast to many areas of the federal budget, funding for these areas has not declined. Thus, investment in these areas . . . relative to other budget priorities is greater than it was prior to the COMPETES legislation and is likely substantially greater than it would have been . . . .”

The Gathering Storm report and the COMPETES legislation gave considerable attention to K-12 STEM education. Carl Wieman of the University of Colorado and the recent Associate Director for Science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and John Winn of the National Math and Science Initiative testified about the challenges and successes to improving STEM education.   In a statement provided to the committee, Wieman wrote “there continues to be little discernible change in either student achievement or student interest in STEM.”   Peter Lee, Corporate Vice President at Microsoft Research described the importance of highly qualified employees to Microsoft’s success.  There are, he said, far fewer graduating students with degrees in computer science than the number of job openings for computing professionals.  In August 2012, Microsoft had 3,400 research and engineering openings in its U.S. facilities, an increase of 34 percent from a year ago.   

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics