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Support needed for innovation

July 05, 2008

To the editor:

Despite broad, bipartisan consensus on the need for action, Congress and the Bush administration have failed to address the challenges posed to the competitive position of the United States as a technological and economic leader.

Maryland's representatives in Congress are essential to solving this dilemma. Sen. Barbara Mikulski chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. As House Majority Leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer is a key decision-maker when Congress chooses which investments to prioritize.

The World Economic Forum ranks the United States as the world's most competitive economy, but for how much longer? All indications are that America is resting on its laurels while other nations around the world are investing in innovation to make their economies more globally competitive.

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For example, China more than doubled its research and development spending as a percentage of gross domestic product from 0.6 percent in 1995 to 1.4 percent today - this, during a time of very rapid GDP growth in China. As a result, China surpassed the United States in "technological standing" last year, according to Georgia Tech's biennial international ranking of high-tech competitiveness.

Meanwhile, U.S. federal support for research has declined relative to the size of the economy from 1.25 percent of GDP in 1985 to 0.75 percent today. Federal support for basic research in physical sciences and engineering at U.S. universities - research that, in the past, led to the Internet, mobile phones, desktop computing and advanced medical imaging - has declined even faster as a share of GDP. Given the proven link between basic research and long-term productivity growth, this does not bode well for America's future.

Federal neglect of basic research investments also does not bode well for Maryland's future. With its rich array of premier research institutions and innovative high-tech companies, Maryland is a science and technology powerhouse. It ranks third among all of the states in per capita research and development activity, a leadership position that pays great dividends.

Innovations and trained personnel flowing out of Maryland's research laboratories attract high-tech investments and high-wage employment. According to U.S. Commerce Department figures, high-tech wages in Maryland are 82 percent higher than the average private-sector wage in the state.

Both Maryland's and America's positions as technological and economic leaders are at risk if Washington policymakers continue to ignore the competitive challenges facing the United States. For two years in a row, Congress and the Administration have failed to agree on higher funding levels for research at key science agencies despite nearly universal agreement that such action is necessary. As Congress begins its annual appropriations process, there is great danger that this could be the third year running that science and engineering research is shortchanged.

The members of the Maryland congressional delegation have long been champions of America's - and Maryland's - science and technology enterprise. It is time, however, for them to redouble their efforts and convince their colleagues to enact significant funding increases for basic science and engineering research this year. Our future depends on it.

At a minimum, Congress should enact the proposed funding for key federal research agencies included in the administration's fiscal year 2009 budget request:

National Science Foundation: $6.8 billion

National Institute of Standards and Technology: $740 billion

Department of Energy's Office of Science: $4.7 billion

More detailed information about U.S. innovation and competitiveness is available at www.futureofinnovation.org.

John Palafoutas
Co-chair
Task Force on the Future of American Innovation

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