Bill Gates testified in front of the US House Committee on Science and Technology on Wednesday, making an impassioned plea to reorder the nation's educational priorities. Without a strong emphasis on educating young people, attracting and retaining foreign scientists, increasing federal research funding and incentivizing private sector innovation, Gates reasoned, the US will not be able to keep pace with technological developments from abroad. What follows are excerpts from his testimony:
During the last 50 years, the world has witnessed truly revolutionary advances in science and technology.
I am optimistic about the potential for technology to help us find new ways to improve people's lives and tackle important challenges. I am less optimistic, however, that the United States will continue to remain a global leader in technology innovation. While America's innovation heritage is unparalleled, the evidence is mounting that we are failing to make the investments in our young people, our workers, our scientific research infrastructure and our economy that will enable us to retain our global innovation leadership.
In particular, I believe that there are two urgent reasons why we should all be deeply concerned that our advantages in science and technology innovation are in danger of slipping away. First, we face a critical shortfall of skilled scientists and engineers who can develop new breakthrough technologies. Second, the public and private sectors are no longer investing in basic research and development at the levels needed to drive long-term innovation.
If the United States truly wants to secure its global leadership in technology innovation, we must, as a nation, commit to a strategy for innovation excellence--a set of initiatives and policies that will provide the foundation for American competitive strength in the years ahead. Such a strategy cannot succeed without a serious commitment from--and partnership between--both the public and private sectors.
Strengthen educational opportunities for young students: Too many of our students fail to graduate from high school with the basic skills they will need to succeed in the 21st-century economy, much less prepared for the rigors of college and career. Although our top universities continue to rank among the best in the world, too few American students are pursuing degrees in science and technology. Compounding this problem is our failure to provide sufficient training for those already in the workforce.
Revamp immigration rules for highly skilled workers: Knowledge and expertise are the essential raw materials that companies and countries need in order to be competitive. We live in an economy that depends on the ability of innovative companies to attract and retain the very best talent, regardless of nationality or citizenship. Unfortunately, the U.S. immigration system makes attracting and retaining high-skilled immigrants exceptionally challenging for U.S. firms.
I want to emphasize that the shortage of scientists and engineers is so acute that we must do both: reform our education system and reform our immigration policies. This is not an either-or proposition. If we do not do both, U.S. companies simply will not have the talent they need to innovate and compete.
Increase federal funding for scientific research: Federally funded research supports the education of the next generation of scientists and engineers, those who will largely determine whether the United States remains innovative and globally competitive. Government support was critical, for instance, to the development of public-key encryption technology, which became the foundation for most e-mail applications, digital certificates and virtual private network software, as well as non-Internet technologies such as ATMs and credit card machines.
Research initially conducted by NASA has been applied to improve the safety and effectiveness of angioplasties and breast cancer detection. Funding from the NSF led to the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging. And of course, the Internet itself has its genesis in ARPANET, a project of the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Unfortunately, federal research spending has been stagnant or shrinking over the past several decades. According to the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, "[a]s a share of GDP, the U.S. federal investment in both physical sciences and engineering research has dropped by half since 1970. In inflation-adjusted dollars, federal funding for physical sciences research has been flat for two decades."
This stagnation in spending comes at a time when other governments, such as in China and the EU, are increasing their public investments in R&D. As a nation, our goal should be to increase funding for basic scientific research by 10 per cent annually over the next seven years.
Incentivise private-sector R&D: Private companies are often in the best position to engage in the kinds of applied research and development that yield useful new products. Yet the inevitable pressure on companies to generate profits and maximize shareholder value may deter them from investing heavily in R&D, particularly since these investments are often viewed as riskier than other investments.
While understandable, the reluctance of US companies to invest more heavily in R&D is deeply troubling. If one looks at the personal computer industry, for instance, much of the foundational work for the industry was done in the private sector, at venerable institutions such as Bell Labs and Xerox PARC. Companies today, however, often seem less willing to invest heavily in R&D--or at least seem to focus most of their spending on development and relatively little on true research.
If the United States is to remain a leading innovation economy, US industry must invest more in R&D. To spur this needed investment, Congress should reinstitute the R&D tax credit, which expired last year, and make that tax credit permanent. Doing so would help convince American businesses that longer-term R&D investments--especially those that might take years before they generate any profits--are worthwhile.
I believe this country stands at a crossroads. For decades, innovation has been the engine of prosperity in this country. Now, economic progress depends more than ever on innovation. And the potential for technology innovation to improve lives has never been greater. If we do not implement policies like those I have outlined today, the center of progress will shift to other nations that are more committed to the pursuit of technical excellence. If we make the right choices, the United States can remain the global innovation leader that it is today.