Last October the National Academy of Sciences released an excellent report on enhancing science and technology in the U.S. The report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, was written by a committee of stellar researchers and leaders from academe, industry, and government. Their recommendations would make far-reaching changes to the education opportunities in technical fields and also provide specific enhancements to research in the physical sciences. Although the importance of the physical sciences in underpinning the prosperity that the U.S. has enjoyed is a critical argument that has been made by several groups over the last decade, the standing of this committee, chaired by Norman Augustine, has garnered support for its recommendations on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD introduced on January 26th the Protecting America’s Competitive Edge (PACE) Act. The PACE Act (read more below for key provisions) implements 20 recommendations contained in the Augustine Report. And now, with the State of the Union Address, the President has also weighed in with his American Competitiveness Initiative , echoing the themes of the Academy's report.
A few points are worth noting here. The recommendations are on the whole excellent. The Committeee specificially notes the crucial role that energy research will play in the next century —
"The committee identified two key challenges that are tightly coupled to scientific and engineering prowess: creating high-quality jobs for Americans and responding to the nation’s need for clean, affordable, and reliable energy. "
However, the funds for the proposed increments to energy research are only 10% of the total (by far the greatest part of the President's $5.9B proposal is simply continuing the approximately $5B R&D research credits program which expired in December 05) and will face stiff competition from the other parts of the "managed" portions of the budget, given the Iraq war and Katrina. There is a history of unfunded mandates from the Bush administration that gets maximum credit for announcing programs and minimum flak for not actually carrying them out. Nonetheless, the bi-partisan support for this initiative is a good first step. -- jw