House Science Committee Discusses American Competitiveness and the Role of Research and Development

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Publication date: 
8 February 2013

The first hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in the 113th Congress was held February 6. It focused on the impacts of research and development as well as the outlook for America’s science and technology enterprise. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the new chairman explained that the committee’s goal is to help define how to “ensure that America continues to be the leader of global innovation.” He highlighted the need to work on policies that will affect American competitiveness saying “some nations are creating environments so attractive to global manufacturers that companies have relocated much of their activities to foreign soil. Our global trade imbalance is growing as we export less and import more, and today, this imbalance includes many high tech products.”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) showed strong support for research and development investments in her opening statement:

“Without dismissing the value of many other investments we make with our limited discretionary budget, there is probably no single investment we make, other than education, that has done more to ensure our nation’s long term economic vitality than our investment in [research and development]. This holds true for the very long term investments that the federal government is uniquely suited to make in exploratory research – where we have no idea what, if any, applications will result. But it also holds true for the financial and intellectual partnerships we build with the private sector to address more mid-term [research and development] challenges.”

Johnson then went on to advocate for the federal role in multiple stages of research stating that research and development “is not a simple, linear process from basic to applied to development and so on to final commercial product. It also doesn’t go in only one direction. [Research and development] is a part of a complex innovation process with many feedback loops.”

Three witnesses testified. Richard Templeton, President and CEO of Texas Instruments discussed key issues regarding research funding stating that the US was the “clear winner of the first round of the innovation game” but cautioning that the game is changing and that “the relative advances that the US has had over the last 50 years have significantly weakened.” On that issue he noted that other countries are beginning to replicate the US and are providing incentives for companies. He pointed to the contrast between the US and China in federal investments in basic research in the physical sciences as a percentage of gross domestic product. Also, Templeton emphasized the need for high skilled immigration reform, stating that current policy does not encourage researchers to come and stay in the US and does not allow foreign students to stay following the completion of their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degree. Other issues that he discussed include faltering US STEM education systems. He also recommended that policy changes could be made in the area of comprehensive tax reform for US companies.

Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, outlined four requirements to sustain and enhance the US innovation ecosystem: strategic focus to choose promising areas to explore and develop, “game changing idea generation that arises out of basic research which pushes the boundaries of human knowledge,” translational pathways, and capital in the form of a new financial model for technology startup companies as well as infrastructure and human capital. She acknowledged the challenging fiscal climate stating that “we remain the world leader in scientific discovery and technological innovation, but the health of our innovation ecosystem is in jeopardy. As the Congress debates funding in these austere times, we know that there are significant challenges, but the nations that invest in research, educate the next generations, and make commitments to build effective innovation ecosystems will be the global leaders.”

Charles Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering, discussed the process of research and development, stating that it is a global process and is competitive but at the same time collaborative. The process is “driven by basic research and is one that would ultimately die without basic research.” He listed three barriers to the continued success of this process. He stated, as the other panelists also emphasized, that the US K-12 education system is failing. He also explained that the current federal immigration policies make it difficult for foreign graduate students to stay in the US though immigrants “have contributed hugely as professors and entrepreneurs.” Lastly, he advocated for the federal research and development tax credit to be made permanent.

Chairman Smith opened the question period by asking the panel of witnesses where they would target the government research funds in order to get the best return on investment. Jackson answered that improving STEM education at the K-12 level would greatly increase the pipeline of students majoring in STEM fields. She also addressed the dropout rates particularly in the first two years of undergraduate STEM education. She supported focusing on the connections between grade levels to allow students to build on their content knowledge from prior years. Jackson emphasized the need to think about the cumulative nature of math and science fields. She recommended that the focus be on outcomes for students, not only to be able to perform on tests but also to have the ability to use technology. Finally, Jackson advocated for strengthening the STEM knowledge of K-12 STEM teachers and the need for more teachers with a background in STEM subjects.

Johnson questioned witnesses about how to reduce the number of students who enter college with a desire to major in STEM fields but then change interests. Vest echoed Jackson’s previous comments about the need for a good continuum in STEM fields from one grade to the next. Vest also strongly supported encouraging students to major in STEM subjects and concurrently in education providing them a background in education as well as the subject matter to prepare to teach at the K-12 level. Vest also supported adopting STEM standards across the states, and he went on to state that these STEM standards should promote project based learning.

The hearing was well attended by Members of the Science Committee, many of whom stayed until the end to ask questions. The issues of maintaining US competitiveness and the economic benefits of research were discussed throughout the hearing. Both sides of the aisle seemed pleased to hear an overview of how research is developed, performed, and carried out. They also seemed interested in working to find ways to support research and development in light of the current fiscal climate.