RealTime IT News

Bush May Pump Tech in State of the Union Address

In five previous State of the Union addresses, President Bush has spoken more than 30,000 words and only made fleeting references to technology. He has never used the words "Internet" or "broadband" in a State of the Union speech.

That may change tonight.

According to sources contacted by internetnews.com, the president is expected to call for new programs and/or funding to regain America's lost global lead in information technology.

"I think the president will use the bully pulpit to make competitiveness a part of the national debate," said Tom Galvin of Washington-based 463 Communications, which works closely with both Congress and the White House on technology issues.

Another source with close White House connections, who asked to remain anonymous because Bush's Tuesday night speech is not final, said, "[Competitiveness] is still in [the State of the Union address] now."

America's flagging global IT leadership is most famously characterized by the country's current rank at 16th in the world in broadband deployment.

According to a report issued last month by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States is no longer the global leader in exporting information and technology goods.

China has taken that lead, exporting $180 billion worth of tech goods and services in 2004. The United States followed at $149 billion. In 2003, the United States was the world leader, with $137 billion in sales.

More disconcerting to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, however, is Americans' declining interest in math, science and engineering, three benchmark disciplines of technology.

On average, U.S. colleges and universities now annually turn out approximately 1 million graduates, but only 70,000 of those degrees are in engineering. By contrast, China and India churn out 6.4 million college graduates a year, with almost 1 million of those in engineering.

"In 2006, it doesn't really matter how many times [Bush] uses the words, it's how he takes the leadership on competitiveness," Galvin said.

Lawmakers are waiting in the wings for Bush to take that leadership, recently introducing legislation designed to revive U.S. IT fortunes.

In December, Senators John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) rolled out the National Innovation Act, promising to nearly double research funding for the National Science Foundation and establish an Innovation Acceleration Grants program for high-risk, high-tech research.

While the senators were vague on the actual dollar amounts involved in the legislation, Lieberman said it would "significantly increase" federal support for graduate fellowship and trainee programs in science, math and engineering.

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said the National Innovation Act would be a "comprehensive initiative investing, incenting and encouraging Americans into the fields of engineering, science and technology."

Two months ago, Democrats went on the offensive with their own "innovation" Agenda", calling for doubling the funding for basic research and development and adding 100,000 new scientists, mathematicians and engineers to America's workforce in the next four years.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said she and other Democratic leaders spent time holding technology forums across the Silicon Valley and in Seattle, Boston, Chicago and North Carolina's Research Triangle.

"They warned that the commitment of the public sector has not kept pace with America's challenges in the global economy," Pelosi said. "Today, Democrats challenge Congress and the country to renew our commitment to the public-private partnerships that will secure America's continued leadership in innovation."

If all goes according to plan, Bush may be about to accept that challenge.