White House S&T Council Discusses IT, Workforce, Nanotechnology

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Publication date: 
10 October 2003

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met in September to review work in progress on information technology, the science and engineering workforce, and nanotechnology. Final reports are scheduled to be released in coming months.

OSTP Director and PCAST Co-Chair John Marburger and Co-Chair Floyd Kvamme started this all-day meeting by noting PCAST was "one of the inputs to policy here." They explained that two reports the council would discuss were not ready for release. Following that introduction, George Scalise, President of the Semiconductor Industry Association, outlined the findings of the Subcommittee on Information Technology Manufacturing and Competitiveness.

The subcommittee focused on information technology because of its implications for the American economy. Twenty sessions have been held with Bush Administration, academic, and industrial leaders. Scalise reported both good and bad news. IT has been responsible for 30% of the growth in the American economy. However, IT manufacturing in America is declining as international companies increase market share. While America still has large advantages over foreign competitors, these advantages, Scalise cautioned, are not absolute. Overseas manufacturers have the advantages of being closer to markets, lower labor and capital costs, and significant assistance from their governments. While there are positive developments in the United States, such as strong state leadership (NY, VA, and TX being cited as good examples), university R&D support, an educated workforce, and some friendly tax policies, America's future IT leadership is not assured.

Some of these same problems were discussed by Robert Herbold, Executive Vice President for Microsoft Corporation, in his presentation about the work of the Subcommittee on Science & Engineering Workforce/Education. How does the United States stand on the supply and demand for this workforce?, he asked, replying that the answer was not clear. Projections from the Department of Commerce indicate an oversupply, while those from the Council on Competitiveness point toward an insufficient number of students. While it is difficult to predict the long-term future, it is possible to look at short term prospects. Herbold spoke of many financial service positions being moved overseas. Software and mechanical engineering jobs are moving to India, where salaries are 10% of those paid to Americans. Also contributing to these changes are the number of American university students majoring in engineering. In China, 39% of all students are studying engineering, as compared to just 5% in the United States. "What is occurring is a massive exodus of jobs," Herbold told PCAST. His subcommittee's most important finding for policymakers was that "we have a shift here of monumental proportions" in jobs and competitiveness. Key to reversing these trends in strengthening the U.S. innovative base, that being accomplished by greatly improving student proficiency in math and science. A key to doing so is improving classroom teachers though a salary merit system. About this, Herbold said, "there's gold in them there hills."

The final presentation was by G. Wayne Clough, President of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Clough discussed the results of different surveys by the Nanotechnology Technical Advisory Group. He described nine different nanotechnology breakthroughs predicted in the next five years, in fields ranging from materials to homeland security. In surveying experts, the vast majority felt that federal funding for nanotechnology was insufficient. There were not clear linkages between nanotechnology policy and national science and technology objectives, and goals and deadlines were not well defined. Clough stressed the importance of not emphasizing short-term research needs over longer-term needs. His group also found that too many excellent proposals were being turned down for lack of funding. President Bush, Clough stated, should announce a bold nanotechnology initiative with clearly stated goals and expectations, supported with substantially higher funding. Looking at the current situation, Clough told PCAST members that "the feeling is we aren't here today."