As the United States emerges from a recession, members of Congress are debating how to keep the country economically competitive amid challenges from China, India, and other nations. To that end, House Democrats have been trying to pass a big bill for the past several weeks to boost spending on science and technology, only to see their efforts repeatedly stalled by partisan wrangling. U.S. News recently spoke with Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, who chairs the House Science and Technology Committee and is the chief author of the bill, dubbed the "America Competes Act." In its original form, the bill would have authorized $86 billion over 5 years, much of it directed toward scientific research and training. [See where Gordon's campaign money is coming from.] Excerpts:
Where does the United States stand when it comes to science and technology innovation?
We're spending more on [research and development] in gross dollars than other countries. However, the amount we are spending compared to the GDP is going down, particularly compared to Japan and South Korea. This is major. We are still out front, but our margin is shrinking.
Everyone is talking about how the United States is falling behind China. What's the Chinese approach?
It's very strategic. As their economy grows, they are going to need more energy. So with their recent stimulus package, very strategically, they are putting a focus on green technology. [This is] both to provide their country with additional energy and to get the manufacturing scaled up to a point where they can not only compete but also dominate around the rest of the world. We are seeing that they have tremendously increased their market share in solar. Our share of the solar industry has been pretty stagnant, even though we initiated most of it. So really what this could mean for the United States is that we trade our dependency on foreign oil for a dependency on foreign technology.
Does the United States have a coherent innovation policy?
I think it is fragmented, but I think there are some common denominators. We know that we need to increase our investment in research and development, and the America Competes Act continues toward doubling it over 10 years. The reason for that is: If you look at it like a continuum, you start with R&D, which goes into innovation, which then goes into application, which is then jobs. And jobs create a better quality of life, more tax revenue. That allows you to invest more in R&D, and that circle continues.
Does the growing budget deficit constrain what Congress can do?
Certainly it does. In the president's budget proposal, he had a freeze for domestic spending. Fortunately, within that freeze, he had an increase in the Competes area in terms of R&D. So other programs are going to have to go down, while our research and investment go up.
This bill would reauthorize and build upon the America Competes Act of 2007. What's one notable success of that law?
We took the model of DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], the Defense Department's high-risk, high-reward agency, where the Internet was developed, and put it in the Department of Energy, as ARPA-E. Its purpose is not to have incremental improvements in energy technology but transformational ones, and with a very small bureaucracy—right now there are only 16 people there. The idea is to coordinate the best and brightest in the public sector, private sector, national labs, [and] universities, in particular areas. In their first request for proposals, they received something like 3,700 ideas. They gave awards to about 35—what they felt were the best and brightest groups. They got a second tranche that just went out recently.
What would the bill do to improve science education?
We are scaling up some programs we've seen work. We'll be providing scholarships for students who go into math or science and education and agree to teach for five years. We are also providing some stipends and scholarships for young researchers who want to go into research.