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Will Politics Trump Economic Progress?

05/24/2010 09:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
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In 2007, following roughly a year-and-a-half of bipartisan discussions, the U.S. Congress passed what is now known as the America COMPETES Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Last week, Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked the Act's reauthorization for a second time, creating a fundamental threat to America's global leadership in science and technology.

The America COMPETES Act was prompted by recommendations in a 2005 report by the National Academies of Science and Engineering. The report, "Rising above the Gathering Storm," warned in great detail that the United States is in danger of losing its global competitive advantage in science and technology, a prospect that would surely result in economic decline. The report concluded: "Although many people assume that the United States will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world. We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost -- and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all."

The Act -- sponsored in the House by Rep. Bart Gordon, who is now chair of the Science and Technology Committee, and in the Senate by Harry Reid - was designed to ensure America's ability to compete in a rapidly changing global economy by improving science and mathematics education and by bolstering federal support for scientific research.

But politics now stands in the way of growing the American economy and producing the jobs that Americans so desperately need. The reauthorization was blocked, according to Environment & Energy Daily, "by offering up a motion to recommit that would pare down the language, ax new programs and funding levels, and add a hard-to-vote-against anti-pornography provision." The latest version of the reauthorization would be for $48 billion over three years instead of $85.6 billion over five years.

Yes, even $48 billion is a lot of money. Yes, America is facing a huge and mounting national debt. Yes, pornography (however it's currently defined by contemporary community standards) is unfortunate -- especially when viewed by government employees at work. Included in the motion was a provision preventing the National Science Foundation from paying the salaries of employees recently caught viewing Internet pornography while on the job, prompting Members of Congress from both parties to vote aye.

But reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act is absolutely the wrong place to take a stand on these issues. As Jay Timmons of the National Association of Manufacturers says, "Reauthorizing the COMPETES Act will help manufacturers prosper in a globally integrated and highly competitive marketplace." And what's more important than America's global competitiveness?

In addition, this legislation has been, until recently, noncontroversial. The reauthorization passed the House Science and Technology Committee easily (29-8) in late April, with the endorsement of more than 750 organizations. The original legislation - part of President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative - passed the House in 2007 with unanimous consent.

Let's hope that the reauthorization bill passes in the near future. And let's hope that among the budget items that survive this process is the money promised for the Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy (ARPA-E), which represents the U.S. Department of Energy's innovative initiative to accelerate breakthrough science to meet growing energy needs through renewable sources.

ARPA-E has the capacity to invest in bold game-changing research that could completely revolutionize how we approach energy production. DARPA, the Defense Department agency on which ARPA-E is modeled, gave its experts free reign to conduct high-risk high-reward research, and it produced important breakthroughs: GPS, stealth technology, and the Internet itself. Just one breakthrough from ARPA-E's researchers could be decisive in making the United States energy independent.

We live in a world of growing instability fueled in part by U.S. dependence on foreign oil, a world grappling with the effects of an unprecedented oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a world in which 29 West Virginia coal miners recently died in a terrible explosion. In that context, how can the Congress vote to shut off funds for innovation and breakthrough science in renewable energy research, among other areas?

The reauthorization bill is expected to be brought to the House floor again soon. As Congressman Gordon stated to The Hill, "This bill is too important to let fall by the way-side. More than half of our economic growth since World War II can be directly attributed to development and adoption of new technologies."

And this bill is about even more than economic progress; it's about U.S. leadership in tackling the most pressing issues of our time. How truly obscene it would be if pornography is allowed to stand in the way of that!

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), America's oldest foundation devoted solely to science.