Democratic leaders vow to focus on research

Pelosi says a Democratic-led House will try to fix basic science education problems

Democratic members of the 110th Congress, primed to take leadership positions in 2007, say they will work to ensure that the U.S. education system overcomes its failings to bolster the country’s innovative edge in information technology.

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will become the speaker of the House, said Democrats will create a new generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians by improving teacher quality.

“Democrats will place a highly qualified teacher in every math and science K-12 classroom by offering upfront tuition assistance to talented undergraduates and by paying competitive salaries to established teachers working in the fields of math and science,” she said. “We will also institute a call to action to professional engineers and scientists, including those who have retired, to join the ranks of our nation’s teachers.”

The United States has more engineers capable of working at multinational corporations than any other country, but perhaps not for long, according to a new economic report from the Council on Competitiveness. China has twice as many young professional engineers. However, only 10 percent are qualified to work at multinational companies, the report states.

The single greatest threat to U.S. prosperity is the country’s education system, said Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of the report, which was issued Nov. 13. The report, “Competitiveness Index: Where America Stands,” compares two decades of U.S. economic data with data from emerging global economies.

Porter said the United States is pre-eminent in almost every measure of innovation, including domestic research and development spending, but added that “we are no longer the only game in town.”

Contrary to popular myth, domestic R&D investments by governments and multinational corporations are rising as fast as foreign R&D investments, Porter said. The index analyzes how changes in technology, demographics and the economic policies of many countries have affected the playing field.

The quality of the country’s public education system “is our No. 1 economic problem,” Porter said.

Other countries perform better on international standardized tests, even though the United States spends more money per student on education than any other country, except for Switzerland, the report states. South Korea, the country with the second-highest score in mathematics, spends about half as much per student as the United States does, according to the findings.

Porter said attempts to change the system by raising teacher salaries, increasing testing and creating charter schools have not worked.

“We’ve got to do some structural changes, and I don’t know if the nation’s ready for that,” Porter said.

The new index offers past and present economic data to inform future policy decisions. The federal R&D portfolio is significantly imbalanced, according to the report. In the fiscal 2006 budget, 59 percent of all federal R&D spending is for defense, primarily for the development and testing of weapons systems, the report states.

“Flat levels of funding for the physical sciences have raised concerns that investment is inadequate for the United States to remain at the forefront of physical research in the long term,” it states.

President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) proposes to increase federal spending for basic research in the physical sciences and engineering to address this imbalance. Pelosi, however, said the R&D budget needs a more balanced  approach than the one outlined in the president’s agenda.

Some members of the computing research community have questioned whether increasing the budget for the National Institutes of Health, which the Democrats and computing researchers support, will cut into funding for IT research. 

“There’s a concern that the budget environment hasn’t changed — there isn’t any obvious new money floating around — so any increase for NIH will likely come at the expense of something else,” said Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the Computing Research Association. “Obviously, we don’t want to see that ‘something else’ be IT R&D or any of the other ACI priorities.”

Pelosi, who served on the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee when the subcommittee doubled funding for NIH, said adequate funding for the life sciences remains a high priority for her.

“Increases in funding for NIH do not have to come at the expense of funding for basic research in the physical sciences,” she said.

Pelosi added that the R&D funded by the National Science Foundation and other agencies in the physical sciences leads to the development of new technologies and instrumentation, which, in turn, enhance the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses.

“In order to maximize the potential of our investment in NIH, we must dramatically increase the resources available for research through the NSF and other agencies engaged in physical science R&D,” she said.

Pelosi is “saying absolutely the right things, which gives our community great comfort,” Harsha said. But he added that “we’ll still keep an eye on the process.”
Senate will revisit education issuesSenate Democrats say they are aware of the importance of education in advancing information technology research and development.

“Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act during the 110th Congress will give us another avenue to improve the quality of public education in the country,” said Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). Bingaman is the lead Democratic senator on education standards, education technology, at-risk students and pension reform on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“We can address some of the issues outside of the narrow scope of improving just math and science,” such as the dropout rate in high schools, McCartin said.

— Aliya Sternstein

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