THE BLOG
08/04/2011 11:57 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2011

Investing in Our Future Is the Best Way to Fix the Nation's Economy Over the Long Run

I share the well-founded concern of many Members of Congress that if we don't act to address the deficit, we will be leaving our children and grandchildren with a growing debt that they will spend their lifetimes trying to pay down. However, I am dumbfounded that we are considering cutting the very investments that will reduce our debt over the long run, ensure that there are well-paying jobs for future generations, and help our young people develop the skills that they need to get those jobs. I am of course referring to federal investments in science and technology.

As a Member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and now as Ranking Member, I have had the privilege of hearing countless witnesses from industry, academia, and government over the past several years testify that investments in research and development (R&D) are essential to keeping America competitive in a challenging international marketplace. In fact, according to a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, changes in technology are the only source of permanent increases in productivity.

The America COMPETES Act, which was based on recommendations in the National Academies' report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, aimed to bolster our national economic competitiveness by increasing our investments in basic research, conducting high-risk, high-reward energy technology development, and improving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. It garnered broad support across a broad spectrum of stakeholders, ranging from business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to professional societies like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the American Chemical Society (ACS).

It should be noted that the federal government is the primary source of funding for basic research conducted in the United States, providing nearly 60 percent of funding. Basic research provides the essential foundation for technology development and innovation.

Basic research into the laser, once dubbed "a solution looking for a problem," led to fiber optic communications, bar codes, and DVD players among countless other technologies.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin were receiving funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) when they developed a prototype internet search engine, which depended on their innovative PageRank Method. PageRank is still used in their search engine service, known today as Google. Today, Google has over 23,000 employees and is worth over $150 billion.

To create the jobs of the future in the U.S., we also need to ensure that the U.S. leads in developing transformational technologies. One of the approaches taken in the America COMPETES legislation was the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E brings together the best and the brightest from the private sector, academia, and the national labs to advance energy technologies.  It's modeled after the highly successful and highly innovative DARPA at the Department of Defense, which brought us "game-changing" breakthroughs like stealth technology, GPS, and the Internet. 

Finally, STEM education is critical to our students' future and to our nation's economic competitiveness, yet according to the Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. currently ranks 17th in science and 25th in math out of 34 countries. Though our best STEM students have no trouble competing with their international peers, on average, our K-12 students continue to lag far behind their international peers in math and science aptitude.  Earlier this year, the National Assessment Governing Board released the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science scores. The assessment found that less than half of our nation's students are demonstrating solid academic performance and proficiency in science. Equally troubling are the significant achievement gaps at every level between White and minority students.  The NAEP reported that, on a zero to 300 scale, Black fourth-graders and eighth-graders scored an average of 36 points lower than their White counterparts and Black 12th-graders scored an average of 34 points lower than their White counterparts. Additionally, A report issued last month by the Department of Education found that the performance gap between White and Hispanic students has remained unchanged since 1990, with Hispanic students scoring about 20 points -- or two whole grade levels -- lower on the NAEP scale than their white counterparts. 

While this achievement gap was never excusable, as long as our nation overall was still number one, it was easier for our leaders to let year after year pass without taking the hard steps to address it.  But now, just as our nation's leadership is challenged, our demographics are shifting in profound ways.  By the year 2050, minorities are predicted to represent 55 percent of the national college population.

We need to ensure that the U.S. continues to produce the world's best scientists, mathematicians, and engineers and to make sure that every student is prepared for the highly technical, high-paying jobs of the future. For example, according to 2008 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the professional information technology (IT) workforce was projected to add a little under a million new jobs between 2008 and 2018. This represents more than twice the rate of overall workforce growth over that same period.

The workforce of the future will need STEM skills to fill those jobs, and we need a STEM-educated workforce here in the United States if we are to attract and retain the companies that are the leaders in technological innovation. Indeed, many high-tech companies cite the availability of a skilled STEM workforce as the number one reason for determining where they locate their facilities.
 
In conclusion, we need to take a step back and refrain from making short-sighted, ill-advised cuts to our R&D investments in pursuit of illusory budgetary benefits. While we debate turning the lights off on groundbreaking research projects, shuttering world-class research facilities, stopping emerging industries in their tracks, and losing many of our best and brightest scientists from the STEM pipeline for good, our competitors in China, India, and elsewhere are surging ahead in their investments in R&D, STEM education, and emerging industries. Now is simply not the time to take the hatchet to federally funded R&D and STEM education programs.