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Are We Losing Our Competitive Edge?

Bill Gates Testifies on Innovation

Hearing sparks debate on how to restore our scientific and technological leadership; CAP offers solutions.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates will appear before the House Science and Technology Committee tomorrow in what will be the first of a series of hearing on challenges to our nation’s innovation agenda. A look at recent findings, including the National Science Foundation’s biennial report on the state of science and engineering research and education, shows that there is cause for concern.

As Tom Kalil points out in a recent Science Progress article on the topic, the U.S. high-tech trade deficit jumped to $132 billion in 2005 from $32 billion in 2000; federal government support for academic research and development began falling in 2005 for the first time in a quarter-century; and private industry support for basic research has also been stagnant or declining.

The United States may be falling behind on innovation, but bold, decisive action can restore our scientific and technological leadership. Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google Vinton Cerf, writing in Science Progress on the Sputnik anniversary said:

“As we look to solve global problems we need to take a more imaginative, less adversarial approach to generating the products and arrangements that will make for a more livable planet … it is time for scientists, technology leaders, financiers and public policymakers to take the same kind of concrete, swift steps embraced by our country 50 years ago—steps that can result in a new flourishing of creativity and ingenuity emblematic of great scientific endeavors.”

Tom Kalil and John Irons have put forth a detailed set of policy recommendations that would do just that. As part of the Center for American Progress’ economic plan for the next administration, they call for a “A National Innovation Agenda” that includes:

  • Doubling the research budgets of key science agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and providing even larger increases (10 percent per year) for the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department.
  • Maximizing the effect of this investment by increasing support for university-industry collaborations and high-risk, high-return research. This would help replace the void left by the decline of industrial basic research documented by the National Science Board.
  • Harnessing science and technology to address some of the “grand challenges” of the 21st century, such as the transition to a low-carbon economy that will reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases while creating millions of “green collar jobs,” or the development of new learning technologies that are as effective as a personal tutor and compelling as the best video game.
  • Spurring private sector investment in innovation by making the research and experimentation tax credit permanent and providing tax incentives for investment in next generation broadband networks.
  • Ensuring that America’s workforce has world-class skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This will require upgrading the STEM skills of the existing workforce, improving K-12 math and science education, encouraging more students to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM fields, and creating a “fast track” employment-based visa for foreign students that receive an advanced technical degree from U.S. universities.

As Bill Gates will no doubt reiterate in his testimony tomorrow, it is time to invest in innovation. America’s future economic prosperity depends on it.

For more information on the Center for American Progress’ innovation policies, see: