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Op-Eds :: January 2, 2006

The United States Must Regain its Competitive Advantage [Gordon]

Published in the Nashville Tennessean


America stands to lose its place as the global leader in innovation if we don't take action.  What's the problem?  Quite simply, other countries are outpacing the U.S. in science and technology.  Pretty soon, we may find that we are unable to regain what we have lost.

In October, authors of a National Academy of Sciences study testified before the House Science Committee on the need to keep the nation competitive.  The panel of experts, led by Norm Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, made it clear that if we keep heading in our current direction, we will be surpassed by countries that take education and research in science, math and technology more seriously than we do.

Until relatively recently, we in the United States had the competitive advantage in these fields.  But times are changing.

Foreign countries are already beginning to outpace us.  The NAS study found that in 2004, China graduated more than 600,000 engineers; India, 350,000 and America, only 70,000.

Consider that U.S. students placed 27th among participating countries in a recent international test involving understanding of math.  And nearly two-thirds of students studying chemistry and physics in U.S. high schools are taught by teachers with no major or certificate in the subjects.

The U.S. has become a net importer of high technology products.  The situation stands to get even worse because other countries now have national strategies to develop the technology of the future and then do whatever it takes to lure high tech jobs to their shores.

What could it mean for you if the U.S. loses its competitive edge?  The best jobs may soon be found overseas instead of in our communities.  Today's children may grow up and have a lower standard of living than their parents.

Democrats and Republicans alike agree that action must be taken.  That's why I have introduced three pieces of legislation that take the NAS report recommendations and build upon them.

My 10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds Science and Math Scholarship Act will ensure that our science and math teachers are trained and ready to handle the changing pace of science education needs.  The bill calls for recruiting 10,000 math and science teachers annually by providing scholarships to science, math and engineering students who commit to becoming teachers upon completion of their degrees.

It also authorizes summer teacher training institutes for current teachers to improve their content knowledge and teaching skills, establishes a master's degree program for in-service science and math teachers, and establishes training programs for preparing science and math teachers to teach Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in science and math.

The Augustine committee also stresses the need to affirm and increase our commitment to long-term research.  My Sowing the Seeds Through Science and Engineering Research Act authorizes a 10% increase per year in funding for basic research in the physical sciences, mathematical sciences and engineering at the principal agencies supporting such research.  These increases, if sustained, would lead to doubling of basic research funding in these critical areas over seven years.

And the third bill I introduced, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy Act, will speed the process of transforming new energy technologies for practical use.  It will also work to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy by 20% in the next 10 years.

This legislation is the link that will put the NAS panel's good ideas into action for U.S. teachers, students, universities, researchers and businesses.  Our students - the next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs - may not be able to find rewarding careers here at home if we don't act now.  Good jobs will continue to move overseas, leaving low-wage options behind.

The question is this: are we willing to invest in our children's future?  I certainly am.  We must strengthen our competitive position through math and science education by creating a business environment conducive to innovation and by making sure research and development programs are healthy and the envy of the world.

We know what the problem is, and we have the solutions.  What we need now is the willpower to stop talking and start taking substantive action.

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Bart Gordon, Chairman


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