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US at a tipping point in science & engineering, new report shows

October 01, 2020
By: Ellen Marrison

At a time that is often referred to as “The Age of Technology,” the U.S. has no coherent strategy for maintaining its high standing as a world leader in science, technology and innovation, and has watched as China has overtaken the country on many indicators of prowess in R&D and innovation. That assertion is among among the findings of a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one that shows the country at a tipping point and failing to embrace necessary actions to maintain its leadership in science and engineering.

The Perils of Complacency: America at a Tipping Point in Science & Engineering is a five-year update to an earlier report (Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream) from the Academy and highlights significant developments and emphasizes actions that “remain in urgent need of attention from U.S. policy leaders.” The current report notes that the update was written “because the crucial message in our previous report about the vital importance of research has been reflected in China’s priorities but has not stimulated the much-needed action by the United States.” Many of the original recommendations are reiterated in the new report, along with calls for additional action.

In a webinar yesterday accompanying the release the report, Norman Augustine and Neal Lane, co-chairs of the Committee on New Models for U.S. Science & Technology Policy that produced the report, noted the waning commitment to funding scientific R&D and ensuring the pipeline of talent to fill the jobs and make the discoveries that have been an integral part of this country’s growth and development. Meanwhile, China has quietly surpassed the U.S. in R&D investment (at purchasing power parity), Augustine said, a development that failed to make headlines here or appear in presidential debates.

With the global pace of scientific and technological (S&T) discovery accelerating, to fall behind even a few years in S&T R&D “can have grave consequences for a country’s economy, job creation, standard of living, and national security,” according to the report. Falling federal investment in R&D, decreasing interest in STEM careers among America’s youth, an inadequate precollege educational system, and failure to attract Americans of diverse backgrounds into STEM careers will continue to hamper the country’s growth and develop a strong workforce.

The report reasserts many of the recommendations of the 2014 report, including calls for an increase in total R&D investment (public and private) as a percent of GDP; increased federal funding for basic research; doubling the number of H1-B visas; implementing mechanisms for more effective university-industry partnerships, and more. Additionally, the 2020 report makes recommendations focused on strengthening the U.S. STEM education and workforce, including implementing recommendations from the 2005 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Gathering Storm report and repealing the tax on earnings of endowments of private universities.

If recommendations are undertaken, the report notes that researchers from across the country will ensure the U.S. remains ahead in scientific discovery, but that it will require decisive action, which has been lacking in recent decades.

“The direction America has drifted in recent decades suggests a country that is neither investing in a future as a major global competitor in science and technology, innovation, and commerce, with an abundance of quality high-paying jobs, nor cultivating a cadre of skilled young adults to fill such jobs. Meeting these challenges will require major, even radical, changes in government policies and priorities at the federal, state, and local levels, along with constructive responses by U.S. businesses and academia,” the report notes in its conclusion.

The committee hopes to engage members of Congress in calling for action on the recommendations and more outreach and public engagement regarding the report is planned for the coming weeks.

r&d, education stem, science policy, technology, china