Congress Gets Competitive With Bills

With supplemental funding for the war in Iraq behind it, at least temporarily, the U.S. Senate today dealt with what Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) characterized as the “other great issue” facing the country: America’s ability to compete in a global economy.

Drawing wide support from Democrats and Republicans, the Senate approved legislation dramatically increasing federal funding for research. The bill also seeks to jump start a revival of student interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs from elementary to graduate schools.

On average, U.S. colleges and universities now annually turn out approximately one 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.

Combining several Senate bills from last year drafted in response to President Bush’s 2006 call for an “American Competitiveness Initiative,” the America Competes Act would also lay the foundation for a national “innovation infrastructure” by requiring the National Academy of Sciences to identify barriers to innovation. The 206-page bill passed on an 88-8 vote after more than three days of debate.

“This problem [competitiveness] is too big for one political party to solve,” Alexander said. “We can not take for granted one year longer our ability to globally compete.”

Key provisions of the new bill include doubling funding for the National Science Foundation over the next years from $5.6 billion to $11.2 billion and doubling funding over the next 10 years for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science to more than $5 billion.

The bill would also increase the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s budget and mandates the agency set aside no less than eight percent of its annual funding for high-risk, high-reward research.

To attract more students and teachers to STEM studies, the bill would create programs, grants and scholarships, including expanding statewide specialty schools in math and science. Several other programs in the bill focus on improving the skills of STEM teachers.

“This bill slingshots our economy forward,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “We are not giving [our students] to the tools to compete.”

The passage of the America Competes Act follows approval Tuesday afternoon in the U.S. House of two bills also aimed at improving America’s competitiveness. The legislation envisions 25,000 new STEM teachers to prepare the U.S. workforce for a 21st Century economy. A second bill provides grants for young scientists to pursue high-risk research.

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and TechNet, a coalition of technology executives, rushed to praise the House action in separate statements.

SIA President George Scalise said the bills are an “important step toward advancing two important goals — supporting basic scientific research at U.S. universities and preparing more American students to pursue careers in science and engineering.”

Lezlee Westine, president and CEO of TechNet, added, “To maintain our status as the most competitive and innovation nation in the world, we must make strategic financial and intellectual investments that will guarantee our national and economic security for generations to come.”

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