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Some critics have tried to put the blame for the U.S.'s scientific decline on President George W. Bush, citing his hostility to stem-cell research, his downplaying of global warming, his statements in support of "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution, and his Administration's appointment of nonscientists to scientific panels as well as its alleged quashing of dissenting scientists (see story on page 37). Although that record has certainly roiled the scientific community at home, experts in business and academia have been warning for decades that U.S. science was heading for trouble for three simple reasons. The Federal Government, beset by deficits for most of the past three decades, has steadily been cutting back on investment in research and development. Corporations, under increasing pressure from their stockholders for quick profits, have been doing the same and focusing on short-term products. And the quality of education in math and science in elementary and high schools has plummeted, leading to a drop in the number of students majoring in technical fields in college and graduate school. In the past, hungry immigrants looking for America's prestigious Ph.D.s made up for that decline in the U.S. science and engineering labor force. Now if they come to America for Ph.D.s, students often return with them to gleaming labs in their homelands.
The warnings about those three forces have been largely ignored. In the aftermath of 9/11, for example, the political class complained that nobody had heeded a report issued nine months earlier by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman warning of a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The report also said "the inadequacies of our systems of research and education" posed a threat to U.S. national security greater "than any potential conventional war that we might imagine." Nobody paid attention to that part either.
People are paying attention now, though. Responding to an increasingly insistent drumbeat of lobbying over the past few months from industry leaders, scientists and legislators, Bush announced in his State of the Union address last week the launch of what he called the American Competitiveness Initiative. The plan: double federal funding of research in basic areas like nanotechnology, supercomputing and alternative energy; make permanent the R&D tax credit; and train 70,000 additional high school science and math teachers. Aboard Air Force One the next morning, the President told Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican Senator who has been pushing the idea hard for the past year, that he's determined to make it happen. "I want to make sure that everyone knew I was taking this seriously," said Bush.
In contrast to his then dead-end proposal to reform Social Security, so are lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Last spring Alexander, along with Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, wrote to the prestigious National Academies, an umbrella group that includes the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, and asked for a formal assessment of the U.S.'s eroding superiority in science and technology.