Two years on, a National Academies report on US competitiveness struggles to make an impact.
It is not often that a US senator talks about science, and even more rarely that she claims to bear good news. But that's the message Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican senator from Texas, tried to deliver last week to a restless crowd in a hotel ballroom in Washington DC.
The occasion was a look-back at a major 2005 report from the US National Academies on the state of science and engineering in America. Called Rising Above the Gathering Storm, it warned that the United States could soon lose its worldwide lead to other nations that have been investing aggressively in science and engineering education and research. Hutchison called the report a “wake-up call. Even in Congress, we got it”.
But did they? Last August, Congress did respond by passing the America COMPETES Act, which vowed to double the physical sciences research budgets at such key agencies as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. But in the United States, legislation saying that budgets ought to be increased is separate from the legislation that actually increases them. And the latter promptly got lost in the government's budgetary meltdown, as Congress year after year fails to approve final numbers for each fiscal cycle until months later than expected. When the fiscal 2008 numbers were approved last December, the funding that Congress had pencilled in for the COMPETES Act — and that the agencies had been counting on — had disappeared. The resulting turmoil has forced research agencies to put major initiatives on hold, to put employees at national laboratories on unpaid leave, and to pinch pennies everywhere.
Many of the Gathering Storm authors in Washington last week were understandably furious. Broken promises are demoralizing, to say the least, and make it impossible for agencies to plan or manage coherently. Still, many of Gathering Storm's best ideas could be implemented without waiting for Congress to collectively grow up and show financial responsibility. These ideas include bolstering programmes to train maths and science teachers; getting more students to enrol in advanced courses in high school; providing special funds to help young scientists start their own labs; and making it easier for foreign-born scientists to enter the country. Such measures would still require action from Congress, the president, or both. But they might very well be faster and easier to implement than the kind of major national commitment outlined in the America COMPETES Act.
In addition, it is important for supporters of the competitiveness initiative to remember that they, too, have a responsibility, which is to keep on communicating to legislators and to the American public at large why America COMPETES is more than just a 'Full Employment For Physical Scientists Act'. As David Ferraro of the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pointed out at the conference, the hotel ballroom was an “echo chamber”: Americans elsewhere don't necessarily buy the notion that pouring money into research is the best way to spend their tax dollars. Indeed, some researchers argue that the statistics showing that the United States is falling behind have been misinterpreted (see H. Salzman & L. Lovell Nature 453, 28–30; 2008).
So, while the Gathering Storm goals are worthy ones (see Nature 437, 1208; 2005), supporters would be well advised to broaden their message beyond the usual suspects. Members of Congress are not going to stay on target for long when their constituents have other pressing issues, such as the economy or the war in Iraq, on their minds.