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The President Discovers Science

The President Discovers Science
February 1, 2006

A year ago, science and technology barely seemed to be on President Bush's radar screen. His only mentions of research in his 2005 State of the Union speech were to note that the government had expanded research on defending against biological and chemical attacks, to thank Congress for having doubled funding for the National Institutes of Health, and to warn -- in a critique of embryonic stem cell research -- that the country must "ensure that scientific advances always serve human dignity, not take advantage of some lives for the benefit of others."

A week later, he unveiled a 2006 budget plan that called for tiny increases for the two main sponsors of academic research, the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, and cuts in research funds at the Departments of Defense, Energy, Agriculture and Commerce. The proposal, the Association of American Universities said, would "erode the research and innovative capacity of our nation."

Last night, after a year in which report after report bemoaned the United States' declining economic competitiveness and the technical capabilities of its citizens, science played a key role in President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address. Given the state of the world, it isn't surprising that foreign affairs and national security dominated much of the speech.

But when the president turned his attention to domestic concerns, perhaps hoping to find a popular topic that the country's deeply divided Republican and Democratic politicians can agree on, he focused on need to enhance the country's competitiveness from a range of perspectives -- with research and development front and center.

"To keep America competitive," Bush said, "one commitment is necessary above all: We must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity. Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hard-working, ambitious people – and we are going to keep that edge." To do so, he unveiled what he called the "American Competitiveness Initiative," designed to "encourage innovation throughout our economy, and to give our nation’s children a firm grounding in math and science."

The president's plan calls for doubling federal spending on the "most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences" over a decade, to "support the work of America’s most creative minds as they explore promising areas such as nanotechnology, supercomputing, and alternative energy sources." Although he did not mention a dollar figure for this pledge in his speech, administration officials said the White House would propose providing $50 billion over 10 years in new funds for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology -- an aggregate increase for the three agencies of about seven percent a year.

In addition, Bush proposed making permanent the research and development tax credit, "to encourage bolder private-sector investment in technology. With more research in both the public and private sectors, we will improve our quality of life – and ensure that America will lead the world in opportunity and innovation for decades to come." Doing this would cost the federal government $86 billion over 10 years, administration officials said.

Lastly, the president called for bolstering the teaching of science, to "encourage children to take more math and science, and make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations." He said the administration would seek to bring 30,000 science and math professionals into the classroom as teachers, and to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science.

Although the president did not mention it in his speech, administration officials said that as part of the competitiveness initiative, the 2007 budget would also include funds to create Career Advancement Accounts of up to $3,000 to help workers get new training and skills, which some workers would be likely to use for training at community colleges and for-profit institutions. University officials were also expecting the president to talk about easing visa policies for scholars and graduate students, but he did not. White House materials about the speech, however, said that the president "supports attracting and retaining the best and the brightest high-skilled workers from around the world by reforming the nation's immigration system."

Not surprisingly, the reception from academe to this year's speech contrasted markedly with the greeting last year's received. "We applaud the President for making American innovation and competitiveness a top priority for his Administration," Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities, said in a prepared statement. "While we look forward to seeing the details in his budget next week, the investment he is proposing in basic, university-based research can help maintain this nation’s global leadership in science and technology and produce the next generation of scientists and engineers." 

Added Alan Merten, president of George Mason University, which co-sponsored a National Summit on Competitiveness in December: "This is a big thing. The fact that the president is talking about this is exciting, and there's real money there."

Momentum has been building in recent months for a concentrated effort to strengthen American science and technology, given perceived needs to sustain the country's economic competitiveness internationally,  buttress national security and develop its work force. A series of reports by government agencies, business leaders and university groups have called for more federal investment in research and development and science education, among other things.

Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation aimed at carrying out the aims of those reports, which called for spending $9 billion in 2007 and more in successive years. Among other things, that legislation would create 25,000 scholarships for high school graduates studying science, engineering or math, and 5,000 research fellowships for graduate students that would cover education costs and provide a stipend.

As appealing and exciting as initiatives like that and the new research spending the president proposed in his speech Tuesday night may be to college and university officials, they should not count their grants quite yet, warned Daniel S. Greenberg, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and longtime science policy observer.

Lawmakers slashed the federal budget last year and anticipate another brutally tight budget year in 2007, so President Bush "can't possibly provide more than token increases, if that, for the many needs in higher ed and science," Greenberg said. "Science spending has stagnated. NASA is planning big with huge budget gaps unfilled. NIH and NSF are falling behind in real support. Fortunately, the science system is big and resilient and can survive a few years of austerity, but the financial situation does not seem likely to improve in a few years, given the colossal deficits that Bush has run up."

 

 

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