House Democrats stake out high-tech ground

Introduced as the Innovation Agenda, plan seeks to double NSF's budget

House Democrats introduced a multiyear technological to-do list last week for reigniting the country's competitiveness. But industry leaders and researchers who have long pushed for more federal incentives for innovation say partisanship and other budget priorities could stifle the newfound spark.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the plan Nov. 15 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. She called it the Innovation Agenda.

Agenda initiatives include doubling the National Science Foundation's budget, creating a skilled workforce, funding public/ private partnerships, and permanently extending the research and development tax credit.

Republicans questioned the Democrats' commitment to innovation. "Pelosi introducing a tech-friendly agenda is like Elmer Fudd introducing a rabbit-friendly agenda," said House Republican Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce of Ohio.

The Democratic-sponsored plan aims to educate 100,000 new scientists, engineers and mathematicians in the next four years by giving scholarships to students who promise to choose those occupations. In addition, the plan calls for a special visa for international doctoral and postdoctoral scholars of math, science, technology and engineering to help keep talented individuals in the United States. The plan also pushes tax-deductible college tuition for undergraduates studying in those fields.

One of the Internet's pioneers, David Clark, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former chairman of the National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, said lack of money is limiting innovators' imaginations.

"For the moment, we can contemplate a very ambitious program in building infrastructure, but we still have to hold our hat to pay for the research," Clark said. "The only way to break out of the box is to do what this initiative calls for by increasing the budget of the NSF."

Clark shared a first-hand account of how the United States lost an opportunity to increase IT intelligence to a foreign country. On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, he met an Irish graduate student earning a Ph.D. in computer science at an Irish university.

Schools in both the United States and Ireland had accepted the student into their best academic programs, but he chose a good Irish school over a good U.S. school.

"He didn't have to put up with our onerous immigration policy," Clark said. "We're slipping. The other schools are getting better. Foreign students are voting with their feet."

Like academia, industry has a stake in the brain drain. Harris Miller, president of the IT Association of America, a group that represents high-tech companies, is particularly concerned about creating a new generation of innovators.

"The question is whether the Republicans and Democrats can work together, No. 1," he said. "And the second thing, is there funding available? We don't know unless Congress can figure a way out of the current budget mess. And you're competing with hurricanes, with bird flu and the war in Iraq."

Another prominent researcher, with ties to one of the most innovative U.S. companies, expects that a compromise on the Democrats' agenda could surmount both obstacles. Vinton Cerf, a founding father of the Internet whom Google recently hired as its chief Internet evangelist, said the Innovation Agenda could encourage technology careers just as Sputnik drove his own scientific career.

"I was one of those affected, and looking back, it could not have been more fortuitous," Cerf said. "I sincerely hope that this kind of initiative will engender bipartisan support."

Regaining the high-tech edge

As other countries break the United States' stranglehold on cyberspace and the global economy, House Democrats have unveiled a slate of technological stimuli.

Among the proposals, Democrats recommend:

  • Funding a long-term federal research and development initiative that promotes public/private partnerships.
  • Creating a skilled workforce in the fields of science, math, engineering and information technology.
  • Guaranteeing affordable broadband Internet access for all Americans.
  • Eliminating energy dependence in 10 years by inventing technologies for clean and sustainable alternatives, which would strengthen national security and protect the environment.
  • Arming small businesses with the tools to encourage entrepreneurial innovation and job creation.

-- Aliya Sternstein

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