Seizing Innovation's Moment

01/31/2011 03:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our "Sputnik moment." That's what President Obama called this opportunity for our nation to win the economic future through innovation.

These are powerful words that provide a rational narrative for the United States to build a foundation of investments and policies that ensure our country's leadership in the global economy.

The amount that the President talked about innovation -- in research and development, clean energy, high skilled immigration, education, trade and tax reform - was telling. Focusing roughly one out of ten words in a State of the Union speech with so many of the nation's priorities is both dramatic and demonstrates that the President understands the importance of this task. The reality is that if we tackle each of these issues head on -- together -- our businesses and the nation will become more competitive.

But we must tackle them, now. We can't let politics stop us. The stakes are too high. Six years ago, the National Academies released a groundbreaking report called "Rising Above a Gathering Storm." Many of companies and executives were intimately involved in the development of that seminal report which cautioned that the nation is on a path where a large portion of our people would not be able to fill top quality jobs. But the report also laid out 20 specific actions -- primarily investments in education, research and human capital -- the federal government could take to make American companies more competitive in the global economy.

With bipartisan support, Congress approved the COMPETES Act which acted on many of the Academy's recommendations. A new agency -- Advanced Research Projects Agency--Energy (ARPA-E) -- was created in the Department of Energy to drive high-risk, high-reward basic energy research. Steps were taken to improve K-16 education. In 2009, the Recovery Act went a step further by providing greater investments in expanding the availability of broadband and health IT. We were proud to have worked on those efforts and we applauded those significant advances -- but there is much that still needs to be done.

We cannot lose the momentum created over the past few years -- the risks are too great. In the six years since the Gathering Storm report was first issued, the need for a national innovation policy has become abundantly clear. We need to push innovation policy further and faster. Consider in just those six years:

  • Six million more American students have dropped out of high school and now face the prospect of long-term unemployment.
  • According to the U.S. Education Department, fewer than half of U.S. students are proficient in science.
  • The World Economic Forum now ranks the U.S. 48th in the quality of math and science education.
  • The United States' tax code has become woefully outdated. The last time it was overhauled, Google and Facebook did not even exist. America has the highest corporate tax rates in the world - even higher than Japan's.
  • China has replaced the U.S. as the planet's top technology exporter.
  • Funding for research in the physical sciences at the federal level as a percentage of GDP fell by 54 percent in the 25 years since 1970. In engineering, funding dropped 51 percent.
  • Of the top 10 global companies with the biggest R&D budgets, eight of them now have R&D facilities in India or China or both.

We need a national commitment to supporting an ecosystem that promotes the kind of technological advances and innovations that have made America a world leader. The president rightly described, innovation takes time, hard work, investment and national support. The Internet, GPS and a host of other innovations were the result of government investment, cooperation between the public and private sectors, and consumers ready to embrace new technologies.

Today's budgetary environments give us a challenge -- and many worthy programs will have to be pared back or eliminated to get our fiscal matters in order. But we cannot abandon our responsibility to create more economic opportunity for the next generation. With careful and intelligent investments in innovation, we will recover and thrive in the 21st century.

Let's seize this "Sputnik moment" and stand united to ensure that America remains the leader in the world economy for generations to come.

Rey Ramsey is the President and CEO of TechNet and Chairman of One Economy.