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U.S. Must Sharpen Scientific Edge Soon, Panel Warns

By William J. Broad
THE NEW YORK TIMES

A panel of experts convened by the National Academies, the nation’s leading science advisory group, called Wednesday for an urgent and wide-ranging effort to strengthen scientific competitiveness.

The 20-member panel, reporting at the request of a bipartisan group in Congress, said that without such an effort the United States “could soon lose its privileged position.” It cited many examples of emerging scientific and industrial power abroad and listed 20 steps the United States should take to maintain its global lead.

“Decisive action is needed now,” the report warned, adding that the nation’s old advantages “are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.”

The proposed actions include creating scholarships to attract 10,000 top students a year to careers in teaching math and science, and 30,000 scholarships for college-level study of science, math and engineering; expanding the nation’s investment in basic research by 10 percent a year for seven years; and making broadband access available nationwide at low cost.

“America must act now to preserve its strategic and economic security,” the panel’s chairman, Norman R. Augustine, retired chairman of Lockheed Martin, said in a statement. “The building blocks of our economic leadership are wearing away. The challenges that America faces are immense.”

The underlying goal, the panel said, is to create high-quality jobs by developing new industries and new sources of energy based on the bright ideas of scientists and engineers.

The panel included Nobel laureates, university presidents, corporate chairmen and former presidential appointees. Their report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” said the proposed actions would require changes of law and new or reallocated funds. A summary of the report and a list of the 20 members is online at http://www.nationalacademies.org.

At a news conference in Washington, panel members estimated the cost of the new recommendations at $10 billion a year, a figure that may prove daunting to Congress in a time of tight budgets.

Nevertheless, two senators who helped initiate the effort — Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. — praised its findings.

“This report shines a spotlight on the fact our country is losing its competitive edge,” Bingaman said. “Clearly there are steps we can take to regain our competitiveness, and the recommendations outlined in this comprehensive report give us a good place to start.”

Increasingly, experts say, strides in Asia and Europe rival or exceed America’s in critical areas of science and innovation, often with little public awareness of the trend or its implications for jobs, industry, national security or the vigor of the nation’s intellectual and cultural life.

The panel cited many examples:

Last year, more than 600,000 engineers graduated from institutions of higher education in China, compared with 350,000 in India and 70,000 in the United States.

Recently, American 12th graders performed below the international average for 21 countries on general knowledge in math and science.

Chemical companies last year shut 70 facilities in the United States and marked 40 for closure. Of 120 large chemical plants under construction globally, one is in the United States and 50 are in China.

“Thanks to globalization,” the report said, “workers in virtually every sector must now face competitors who live just a mouse-click away in Ireland, Finland, China, India or dozens of other nations whose economies are growing.”

Its 20 recommendations doubled the number that lawmakers — including Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, and Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., also on the committee — asked for nearly five months ago.

To create a corps of 10,000 teachers annually, the report called for four-year scholarships, worth up to $20,000 a year, that would help top students obtain bachelor’s degrees in science, engineering or math — with parallel certification as math and science teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade.

After graduation, the students would work for at least five years in public schools.

Among the report’s other recommendations were these:

— An Advanced Research Projects Agency modeled after the military’s should be established in the Energy Department to sponsor novel research to meet the nation’s long-term energy challenges.

— The nation’s most outstanding early-career researchers should annually receive 200 new research grants — worth $500,000 each, and payable over five years.

— International students in the United States who receive doctorates in science, technology, engineering or math should get automatic one-year visa extensions that allow them to seek employment here.

If these students get job offers and pass a security screening test, they should automatically get work permits and expedited residence status. Visas should expire for those who cannot get jobs.

— The Research and Experimentation Tax Credit, scheduled to expire in December, should be made permanent and expanded. It goes to companies that increase their spending on research and development above a certain level.

To encourage private investment in innovation, the panel said, the credit should increase from 20 percent to 40 percent of qualifying investments.