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Keeping America Competitive

The American people have just enjoyed a decade of unprecedented prosperity of a magnitude beyond all reasonable expectation, largely because of the fundamental advances achieved through university research sponsored by federal and state government, industry and private donors. How important is university research? Well, last year both Alan Greenspan and the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology concluded that more than half of our growth in economic productivity, and the growth in per capita income, resulted from technological process.

During the current economic slowdown, it is only prudent to ask whether these continued allocations are essential: Are they truly investments or merely operational expenses? Recently, the National Innovation Summit sponsored by the Council on Competitiveness and the National Research Council's Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable both reached the same conclusion: A major increase in U.S. investment in world-class basic research and education is absolutely critical if our nation is to maintain its position of global leadership in science, engineering and technology. Business Week agrees: "Without continued gains in education and training and new innovations and scientific findings?the raw materials of growth in the New Economy?the technological dynamic will stall."

Major opportunities exist in biomedical and genomic research, and the Bush administration's proposal for a 14 percent increase in the budget of the National Institutes of Health will improve medical care for all of us. But the need is also critical in the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering, where fundamental advances have spawned new industries and have developed many of the technologies routinely used in biological research. According to the National Science Foundation, in the past 10 years the number of Americans trained for laboratory research in life sciences has increased by more than 50 percent, whereas the number trained in the physical sciences has decreased.

Simply put, without a major federal and state investment in basic research in these areas, we will not have the scientific workforce in the U.S. to provide for the future innovation that creates national wealth. We will also lack the technical base for the new biology. We are not training enough American scientists and engineers to retain our prosperity, and we are especially unsuccessful in including women and minorities. We are failing at every step of the scientific pipeline. Without a major investment like that last made in the 1960s, we should expect innovation, and with it our competitive edge, to shift overseas.

What to do? Although the devil is in the details, the broad answer is obvious. Encourage all students to study science and mathematics. Improve the schools by supporting teachers. Share with women and minorities the secret of what fantastic career opportunities exist in science and engineering. Make available financial aid for graduate and undergraduate study to those who recognize this potential. Provide our universities flexibility to direct resources toward new and evolving areas, particularly in interdisciplinary pursuits. Encourage new, successful models for partnership, like Centennial Campus at my institution, North Carolina State University?a research and advanced-technology community where university, industry and government partners collaborate to advance knowledge and solve problems.

(Adapted from an Op-Ed piece in the Raleigh, North Carolina, News and Observer, April 13, 2001)

Marye Anne Fox
President, Sigma Xi

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