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US can lose tech edge to India, if. . .

By Agencies
October 13, 2005 14:35 IST
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The United States' top advisory panel has warned that the US is fast losing its edge in science and needs urgent, extensive efforts to strengthen its scientific competitiveness, says a New York Times report.

A 20-member panel of experts convened by the National Academies has listed 20 steps that the US needs to take to maintain its dominant position in science and technology, said the paper.

The panel said that India and China are emerging as real hi-tech centres that can challenge the US hegemony in the field of technology.

The reasons cited for this were that they "have sacrifice and talent, there's a strong value of creativity, and local governments directly and indirectly help financing of technological activity and companies. Capital is available for technology, and there is awareness of the change in the global IT food chain. 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.

Pointing towards the erosion in the nation's scientific prowess, the panel said that other nations are gathering strength.

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.

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

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, said the NYT.

The unmatched vitality of the United States' economy and science and technology enterprise has made this country a world leader for decades, allowing Americans to benefit from a high standard of living and national security. But in a world where advanced knowledge is widespread and low-cost labor is readily available, US advantages in the marketplace and in science and technology have begun to erode.

A comprehensive and coordinated federal effort is urgently needed to bolster US competitiveness and pre-eminence in these areas so that the nation will consistently gain from the opportunities offered by rapid globalization, says a new report from the National Academies.

The panel said these are some indicators that illustrate why decisive action is needed now:

  • For the cost of one chemist or one engineer in the United States, a company can hire about five chemists in China or 11 engineers in India.
  • Last year chemical companies shuttered 70 facilities in the United States and have tagged 40 more for closure. Of 120 chemical plants being built around the world with price tags of $1 billion or more, one is in the United States and 50 are in China.
  • US 12th-graders recently performed below the international average for 21 countries on a test of general knowledge in mathematics and science. In addition, an advanced mathematics assessment was administered to students in 15 other countries who were taking or had taken advanced math courses, and to US students who were taking or had taken pre-calculus, calculus, or Advanced Placement calculus. Eleven countries outperformed the United States, and four scored similarly. None scored significantly below the US.
  • In 1999 only 41 per cent of US eighth-graders had a math teacher who had majored in mathematics at the undergraduate or graduate level or studied the subject for teacher certification -- a figure that was considerably lower than the international average of 71 per cent.
  • Last year more than 600,000 engineers graduated from institutions of higher education in China. In India, the figure was 350,000. In America, it was about 70,000.
  • In 2001 US industry spent more on tort litigation than on research and development.

The congressionally requested report -- written by a 20-member committee that included university presidents, CEOs, Nobel Prize winners, and former presidential appointees -- makes four recommendations, along with 20 implementation actions, that federal policy-makers should take to create high-quality jobs and focus new science and technology efforts on meeting the US' need for clean, affordable, and reliable energy.

Some actions will involve changing existing laws, while others will require financial support that would come from reallocating existing budgets or increasing them. The committee believes that ongoing evaluation of the results should be included in all of the measures.

"America must act now to preserve its strategic and economic security by capitalizing on its knowledge-based resources, particularly in science and technology, and maintaining the most fertile environment for new and revitalized industries that create well-paying jobs," said committee chair Norman R Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md.

"The building blocks of our economic leadership are wearing away. The challenges that America faces are immense."

A brief overview of the four recommendations follows, with a sample of proposed actions to implement them.

10,000 teachers, 10 million minds

  • Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education.
  • Among the recommended implementation steps is the creation of a merit-based scholarship program to attract 10,000 exceptional students to math and science teaching careers each year. Four-year scholarships, worth up to $20,000 annually, should be designed to help some of the nation's top students obtain bachelor's degrees in physical or life sciences, engineering, or mathematics -- with concurrent certification as K-12 math and science teachers.

After graduation, they would be required to work for at least five years in public schools. Participants who teach in disadvantaged inner-city or rural areas would receive a $10,000 annual bonus. Each of the 10,000 teachers would serve about 1,000 students over the course of a teaching career, having an impact on 10 million minds, the report says.

Sowing the seeds

  • Sustain and strengthen the nation's commitment to long-term basic research.
  • Policy-makers should increase the national investment in basic research by 10 per cent each year over the next seven years. Special attention should be paid to the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and information sciences, and to basic research funding for the US Department of Defense, the report says.
  • Policy-makers also should establish within the US Department of Energy an organization called the Advanced Research Project Agency -- Energy (ARPA-E) that reports to the undersecretary for science and sponsors "out-of-the-box" energy research to meet the nation's long-term energy challenges.
  • Authorities should make 200 new research grants annually -- worth $500,000 each, payable over five years -- to the nation's most outstanding early-career researchers.

Best and the brightest

  • Develop, recruit, and retain top students, scientists, and engineers from both the United States and abroad. The United States should be considered the most attractive setting in the world to study and conduct research, the report says.
  • Each year, policy-makers should provide 25,000 new, competitive four-year undergraduate scholarships and 5,000 new graduate fellowships to US citizens enrolled in physical science, life science, engineering, and mathematics programs at US colleges and universities.
  • Policy-makers should provide a one-year automatic visa extension that allows international students to remain in the United States to seek employment if they have received doctorates or the equivalent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or other fields of national need from qualified US institutions.

If these students then receive job offers from employers that are based in the United States and pass a security screening test, they should automatically get work permits and expedited residence status. If they cannot obtain employment within one year, their visas should expire.

Incentives for innovation

  • Ensure that the United States is the premier place in the world for innovation. This can be accomplished by actions such as modernizing the US patent system, realigning tax policies to encourage innovation, and ensuring affordable broadband Internet access, the report says.
  • Policy-makers should provide tax incentives for innovation that is based in the United States. The Council of Economic Advisers and the Congressional Budget Office should conduct a comprehensive analysis to examine how the United States compares with other nations as a location for innovation and related activities, with the goal of ensuring that the nation is one of the most attractive places in the world for long-term investment in such efforts.
  • The Research and Experimentation Tax Credit is currently for companies that increase their R&D spending above a predetermined level. To encourage private investment in innovation, this credit, which is scheduled to expire in December, should be made permanent. And Congress and the administration should increase the allowable credit from 20 per cent to 40 per cent of qualifying R&D investments.

The study was sponsored by the National Academies, which comprise the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.

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