When President Bush announced his support for an American Competitiveness Initiative in his State of the Union address in January -- including $136 billion over 10 years to boost research funding in the physical sciences and train 70,000 math and science teachers to improve the skills of American students -- many of California's scientists and teachers were stunned. Bush hasn't exactly shown much respect for science during his two terms as president.
Many Americans still deeply resent the president's decision to restrict funding for embryonic stem cell research because of opposition from a small religious minority. (Fifty-nine percent of California voters were so outraged they approved a $3 billion bond measure to finance the research. ) We also painfully recall how this administration misrepresented the scientific consensus on global climate change and suppressed information about mercury's effects on public health, along with numerous other scientific findings not compatible with the administration's political agenda.
More than 700,000 scientists were so appalled by this politicization of science that they signed their names to a report in 2004, charging the administration with "suppressing, distorting or manipulating the work done by scientists at the federal agencies."
Still, Bush's competitiveness initiative could not be more important to this state's economy and it deserves strong support from all Californians, even if you must hold your nose while you dial the White House hot line.
It's true that Bush seized on this issue rather late: He announced his plan only after a package of bills had already gathered strong bipartisan support from 60 senators. But Washington rarely devotes attention to long-term competitive needs, and bipartisan consensus is unusual, so now is the time to make sure that Washington follows through with the actual funding.
The United States' competitive advantage in science and technology is fast eroding. Consider these facts:
- Foreign students earn more than half of the master's degrees and two-thirds of the doctorates in electrical engineering awarded by U.S. universities.
- U.S. 12th-graders now rank below the average of 21 countries on a test of general knowledge in mathematics and science.
- In 1999, only 41 percent of eight-graders in the United States had a math teacher who had majored in math or studied the subject for teacher certification. (The international average was 71 percent.)
Foreign advances in basic science now often rival or exceed those of the United States. This is evident in the decline in the number of patents on high-impact inventions held by the United States compared with Asia, and in the number of U.S. papers (in physics, engineering and materials science) that appear in prestigious publications, which has also declined.
For years, the United States has been in a state of denial about its weakened research strength. As Craig R. Barrett, chairman of the board at Intel Corp., observed last year: "It's a creeping crisis, and it's not something the American psyche responds well to -- it's not a Sputnik shot, it's not a tsunami. It is rather a slow and steady erosion of our competitive advantage."
For roughly 30 years after the Cold War, the United States invested heavily in research and education. It built up one of the greatest university systems the world has ever known. Both the computer and biotechnology revolutions were born out of basic research performed in U.S. universities.
But starting in the late 1970s, the United States became complacent. Congress continued to lavish money on the health sciences, but federal funding across other fields -- including the physical sciences -- grew scarce. And the overall quality of our K-12 education system steadily plummeted.
Our competitors in Europe, Asia and India have been consciously emulating our Cold War strategy. Last year alone, China and India graduated 600,000 and 350,000 engineers respectively, compared to roughly 70,000 in the United States.
Bush's "Competitiveness Initiative" certainly isn't perfect. In his 2007 budget, the president proposes drastic cuts to many important educational programs. These are counterproductive and should be stopped. Bush's budget proposal also fails to increase overall basic research spending, and calls for overly drastic cuts at the National Institutes of Health.
But the president has acknowledged that America's economic security depends on sustaining high levels of support for basic research and education. This is critically important, and gives Congress a green light to expand on the president's recommendations.
In California, as George Scalise, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, says, nothing could be more critical to the state's future: "For the past 50 years, a major segment of the California economy has been driven by federal investments in basic research and student training at our universities. Without this support, the state's high-tech industrial sector would be at risk."