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The Executive Officer’s Column

Some Congress Members Stirred by Faltering Science & Tech Support

“Congress Caps Another Disappointing Year for R&D Funding in 2006,” states a headline from the latest American Association for the Advancement of Science’s R&D funding newsletter, characterizing the continuing flat or declining federal support of science. Meanwhile, in February, the President will unveil his administration’s vision of federal support for research in FY 2007, but no one in the science community expects deviation from the incipient declines in real and absolute dollars to many of the primary sources of the nation’s basic science funding. Such declines have reset some agencies’ once-powerful research engines back to levels equivalent to those of many years ago. This is no way to fuel a first-nation society or economy, and these declines come in spite of the oft-repeated mantra in Washington that basic science is the engine that drives innovation in U.S. engineering, medicine, science, and technology.

Some in Congress are also alarmed by the trend. Senators Lamar Alexander (RTN) Tennessee and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)—who serve on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources—with strong endorsements by House Committee on Science Chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN), requested a report last year by the National Research Council (NRC) on how to keep fuel flowing to America’s innovation, including preparing students for jobs of the future. Norman R. Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation and Chair of the National Academies’ Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, chaired the NRC Committee that undertook the congressional request.

The resulting report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, is already spawning complementary bills in the House and Senate. Many science disciplinary associations hope the report will spur the Administration and the second session of the 109th Congress to take seriously ameliorative actions needed to prevent sliding into a hard-to-reverse decline. There is indication that some in the White House do not buy the Rising Storm’s conclusions and specific actions proposed to maintain U.S. leadership in the global marketplace (e.g., as presented in Rep. Gordon’s proposed legislation, H.R 4434, H.R. 4435, and H.R. 4596).

The 10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds Science and Math Scholarship Act (H.R. 4434), for example, is intended to increase the number of U.S. math and science teachers by 10,000 annually by providing scholarships to science, math, and engineering students who commit to becoming K-12 science or math teachers upon completing college. The Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy Act (H.R. 4435) is designed to speed the commercialization of energy technologies to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy by 20 percent in the coming decade. H.R. 4596, the Sowing the Seeds Through Science and Engineering Research Act, is designed to “strengthen the U.S. commitment to scientific research that forms the foundation for our high quality of life, our national security, and our hopes for ensuring the well-being of future generations,” according to Gordon. This bill would implement the Committee on Science’s call to “sustain and strengthen the nation’s traditional commitment to the long-term basic research that has the potential to be transformational to maintain the flow of new ideas that fuel the economy, provide security, and enhance the quality of life.” Finally, H.R. 4596 would authorize an annual 10-percent increase in funding for basic research in the physical sciences, math, and engineering at the principal federal agencies supporting such research. Assuming Congress and the White House sustain such increases, they would result in a doubling of basic research funding over seven years. Four senators will introduce a bipartisan bill (PACE Act) later this month addressing all 20 NRC report recommendations.

Meanwhile, Senators John Ensign (R-NV) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) (along with Richard Lugar (R-IN) and George Allen (R-VA)) introduced the National Innovation Act, a comprehensive effort to ensure the United States remains the leader in R&D-inspired innovation and in the training of scientists and engineers. The bill stems from Innovate America, a report of the Council on Competitiveness, and focuses on three primary areas: research investment, increasing the amount of science and technology talent, and developing research infrastructure. The Association of American Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools, among others, support the bill. To guide progress, this bill would create a “President’s Council on Innovation,” comprised of heads of various federal agencies and chaired by the Secretary of Commerce. The goal would be to develop a comprehensive agenda and coordinate related efforts by the federal, state, academic, and private sectors. In consultation with the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Council would develop and employ metrics to assess the impact of existing and proposed laws that affect innovation. Perhaps this Council would coordinate with the White House proposed “social science of science policy” effort (see “Vantage Point,” December 2005 Footnotes, p. 2). The Council also would help coordinate efforts across agencies.

Arctic sea ice is at an all-time low; 2005 was the second warmest year on record; significant worldwide perturbations in drought, storms, rain, and flooding, including the largest number of storms and hurricanes in documented history, as well as the most intense hurricane recorded, have made even non-scientists take note of fascinating (and destructive) natural phenomena. This dramatic backdrop of scientifically documented natural anomalies may contribute to increased interest in science support by those members of the public and Congress who have not been paying attention to the “renewable fuel” (i.e., science-based innovation) that helps drive the social and economic well-being of our nation and the world.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer