Outside editorial: Support for science, innovation is essential

Posted: Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Though the United States has led the world in science and technology innovation since World War II, countries in Europe and Asia now pose a serious challenge to the nation. Yet the urgency of the U.S. situation has not yet registered.

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U.S. commitment to three pillars - research, high-quality workers and investment - needs to be renewed. In all three areas, the United States is failing to protect its competitive edge.

Federal support for research and development at the nation's universities and laboratories has declined as a percentage of gross domestic product. It peaked in 1964 at 2 percent of GDP; today it's 0.8 percent. The country now ranks sixth in the world. To remain competitive, Congress needs to double research funding.

U.S. policy also is falling behind in support for private-sector R&D to bring discoveries to market with practical applications. Currently, the federal R&D tax credit is temporary, needing congressional renewal each year. To match other countries, Congress needs to make that credit permanent and expand it.

Then, there's the most important resource: human capital. The proportion of U.S. students getting degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields is falling. Our country ranks 17th in the world in the proportion of the college-age population earning a science or engineering degree. Congress needs to increase support for math and science education and, equally important, change immigration policies. The United States needs to recruit the best minds from around the world and give them "green cards," so they can work here and become citizens.

On Thursday, Congress made some progress. The America COMPETES Act won overwhelming approval in the House and Senate. This may be the most significant bipartisan congressional accomplishment of the year. The bill authorizes $43.3 billion for 2008-2010 in two primary areas: putting basic research funding on track to double in the next decade and strengthening educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics from elementary through graduate school.

But as important as the bill is, Congress still has two major areas left to address.

Both houses have bills to expand and make the R&D credit permanent, but these have languished. Get them moving.

More important, the country needs an immigration fix now - not five years in the future - to assure that the United States continues its tradition of access to the best and brightest around the world. Because our immigration system has become so arcane and obsolete, many foreign students educated in the United States aren't even applying here for jobs. At a minimum, Congress should eliminate green card caps on graduates of U.S. universities. (As one member of the Semiconductor Industry Association told The Bee editorial board, when these students graduate, they should get a green card stapled to their diplomas.) Congress also should make available green cards that have gone unused in the past because of bureaucratic backlogs.

As other countries take steps to leapfrog the United States in science and technology innovation, our nation cannot afford to let inertia and complacency rule.

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