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Seeking the ‘eye of the tiger’

WASHINGTON—Science funding is getting an infusion of cash after Congress in December passed a $45 billion reauthorization of the America Competes Act—a bill designed to invest in research and science education, and to fund and foster innovations that will help keep the United States competitive in tech-driven industries.

It signals another key milestone for scientific research, and history teaches us that building and maintaining a competitive advantage is vital to our country.

The importance of maintaining a competitive advantage on the global stage can be defined by one striking moment that occurred Oct. 24, 1957: Sputnik I was launched, an event that marked a 20-year race for supremacy in space between the Soviet Union and the United States. For two decades, the two nations traded volleys in the space race, with the United States gaining the upper hand by the late 1960s. By the 1970s, space exploration stood as a symbol of the competitive nature between the world’s two superpowers for technological, military, cultural and intellectual supremacy.

In a less grandiose analogy, the United States must regain the “eye of the tiger.”

In Rocky III, the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa must come back from a rattling defeat to Clubber Lange and the death of his longtime manager, Mickey. He trains with his old nemesis, Apollo Creed, learning along the way that he needs to stay hungry and keep “the eye of the tiger.”

Sadly, the story has changed in recent decades, with the United States slowly losing its competitive edge. It seems as if we no longer place a premium on education, research and innovation. Evidence of this is seen in the World Economic Forum’s recent ranking of the quality of math and science education around the world—the United States stands 48th. We are lagging behind other countries in the issuance of patents and ­even—in an era of high unemployment—American companies consistently suffer from a shortage of individuals with critical skills.

The America Competes Act can serve as an investment in regaining our competitive edge and becoming the world leader in education, research and innovation.

The bill, which has been in legislative limbo throughout the year, sets funding levels for the next three fiscal years for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s research programs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It also funds education initiatives and a range of other programs.

The legislation provides a total of $23.5 billion for NSF, $16.9 billion for the DOE’s Office of Science, $2.9 billion for NIST, $600 million for education efforts and $1.4 billion for other programs.

The original America Competes Act was approved in 2007. The legislation is based on recommendations outlined in the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report released by the National Academy of Sciences in 2005. It urged the United States to work harder to support technological innovation and enhance science, technology and mathematics education.

“In acting to update and extend the America Competes Act, we will spur innovation, invest in cutting-edge research, modernize manufacturing, and increase opportunity,” says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Simply put, we will continue to ‘rise above the gathering storm’—and keep America No. 1.”

Earlier this year, the bill stood in political limbo, with an earlier draft that was nearly double the cost of the version passed through the House and Senate. A compromise was reached during the lame duck session to cut down the term of the bill from five years to three, creating most of the savings from the original $86 billion draft.

“If we are to reverse the trend of the last 20 years, during which our country’s technological edge in the world has diminished, we must make the investments necessary today,” House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Representative Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said in a statement.

“More than half of our economic growth since World War II can be attributed to development and adoption of new technologies. These investments are the path toward sustainable economic recovery and growth and the path toward prosperity for the next 50 years,” Gordon said.

Among the new programs in the act, 98 percent of which will fund new scientific research, is the creation of an inter-agency public access committee in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The committee will coordinate federal science agency policies related to the stewardship and dissemination of research results, including digital data and peer-reviewed scholarly publications.

Another aspect of the bill welcomed by the research community is the authorization of the funding boost for NSF, NIST, and DOE, which “puts us on a path towards a continued increasing investment in those programs over the next 10 years,” Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biolog.

“It’s a bipartisan bill, which we’re happy about because it sends a signal that investing in science and paying attention to science issues is something that both parties care about,” she said.

Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., a former professor and one of the few members of Congress trained as an engineer, says he was proud to have helped write and pass the measure, which he says “makes essential, job-creating investments in advanced research and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.”

“I am grateful for the valuable feedback I received from the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public Land-grant Universities while writing the NSF title of this bill,” he adds in a statement. “Because of their expertise, and because of what I learned from scientists and research administrators across the country, I believe this legislation will have an enduring positive impact on university-based research and STEM education programs.”

The Business Roundtable lauded Congress for its swift action in passing the America Competes Reauthorization Act.

“The bill will attract more young Americans into technical fields, expand the employment horizons and earnings potential of millions of new American workers, and strengthen America’s future. The Act helps increase our nation’s competitiveness by driving recruitment of K-12 math and science teachers, enhancing the skills of existing teachers, and increasing investments in both scientific research and math and science education. The reauthorization of this act will ensure America remains a global leader in technology, innovation and science in the 21st century,” said Larry Burton, Executive Director, Business Roundtable.

Nonetheless, it was a long and winding road to passage for the bill. The scientific community made an urgent call for it to be reauthorized in September—even issuing a stirring update to the original National Academies report—but despite their best efforts the legislation expired in October before the Senate had time to pass it.

The bill was revived in early December with Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander among those credited for bringing the bill forward. Alexander is a strong supporter of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is another of the agencies set to benefit from the funding increases mandated by America Competes.

“We’re very pleased. We think it’s a very, very important statement in support of research,” says Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C.

Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) leaders are among researchers, engineers, and others in the science and engineering community celebrating the passage today of the America COMPETES Act of 2010.

“We are delighted to see continued strong support for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology,” said SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs.

“We are also happy to see approval for both continued and new spending for Department of Energy (DOE) research, and support for ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy),” Arthurs said. “This is a vital step in building a vigorous innovation pathway, linking the excellent R&D produced by DOE and other agencies to successful commercialization and the creation of jobs.”

Deborah L. Wince-Smith, president and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness, says the group applauds the passage of the America Competes Reauthorization Act with bipartisan support.

“By passing this legislation, Congress has taken a critical step in maintaining America’s leadership in innovation and entrepreneurship, which serves as the foundation for economic growth and long-term prosperity,” she says in a statement.

“The America Competes Act reauthorization paves the way for the vital funding of research, STEM education and American innovation, and will help keep America competitive through a time of great economic uncertainty. We encourage the 112th Congress to build upon this reauthorization and show their commitment to raising the standard of living for all Americans.”

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December 30, 2010 - Posted by | Academia & Non-Profit, Corporate, Government, Labwork & Science

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