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Innovation 2008: U.S. losing race in science, R&D

Finance and Commerce

by Arundhati Parmar Staff Writer

The diagnosis is dire, and the cure may not be immediately available.

Panel members gathered at Innovation 2008, a two-day conference at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said Monday that while foreign countries are investing heavily on scientific research and development, the United States is at grave risk of losing its top dog status in innovation.

At a time when the U.S. government is hamstrung by a $10 trillion national debt and a financial tsunami of sorts, Innovation 2008 is attempting to highlight the problem and find solutions by bringing scientists together with policymakers and the public. More than 100 people have registered for the event and an additional 200 are tuning in online, according to event organizers.

Speakers at the opening panel, who came from organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — USA and the Council of Competitiveness, stressed that the push for increased American competitiveness, and the additional federal funds required to make that happen, need full-throated public support.

And yet, that may be one sticking point.

Shawn Otto, a member of the steering committee of ScienceDebate2008.com, which aimed to have a presidential debate on science and technology, said that media coverage of those topics is less than adequate, which leads to an uninformed public.

“You cannot reduce science to a sound bite … reporters are mostly English majors, and we all know how much they love science,? Otto quipped to general chuckles from the audience.

Others suggested that the public start calling local legislators to urge funding for the “America Competes Act,? passed in December 2007, which committed government support to increase its research and development budget.

“Everybody supports science, motherhood and apple pie … but when it comes to funding, it becomes a problem,? said Dr. Russ Lefevre, president of the 220,000-strong Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — USA in Washington, D.C.

In fact, when it became clear from the 2008 spending bill that the government would not provide the money to fund the America Competes Act, The Taskforce on the Future of American Innovation issued an ironic statement in December 2007: “The nations that seek to challenge our global leadership in science and innovation should be greatly encouraged by this legislation.?

In fact, Kei Koizumi, director, R&D budget and policy program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that since 2003, when American investment has flat-lined or declined, Asian countries — especially Japan, China and South Korea — have been aggressively increasing their financing of research programs. He added that 2009 could be the fifth year in a row that U.S. federal funding for research could decline in real terms. (American Association for the Advancement of Science is also based in the nation’s capital.)

Such is life, of course, and speakers noted that when life gives you lemons, it’s time for some lemonade.

Bill Bates, vice president of government affairs at the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Competitiveness, said that one of the things that researchers can do at a time of fewer research grants is not shy away from so-called high-risk research. He explained that too often researchers are engaging in research that is successful but does not break new ground — with 10 out of 10 that have gotten funding ending up achieving their goals. It is far better, he said, to have nine that fail but one that can change things forever.

Bates added that more portable fellowships should be made available to students so that they can pursue their program of study in an institution they choose — some of these fellowships are federally funded but many nonprofit organizations offer them, too. By contrast, institutional fellowships must be used to pursue graduate study exclusively at the institution awarding the fellowship.

He also pointed to one source of distinction between the scientific community in America and its foreign counterparts that can be leveraged further to maintain the nation’s leadership in innovation. The interdisciplinary approach — where scientists and researchers in America have the tools to become excellent communicators, develop business skills and learn other languages — is generally not available to the hordes of science and engineering graduates pumped out annually by Asian nations, and should be emphasized here, he said.

Original article

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
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