Bush to Nation: Put on Your Thinking Cap

American inventor Thomas Edison, who was known to work 20 hours a day in his lab, once promised to discover “a minor invention every 10 days and a big thing every six months or so.” In announcing his new plan for growth in American innovation, President George W. Bush has been equally ambitious.

“Innovation is a vital part of the future of the United States of America, and the fundamental question is, how do we keep our society innovative?” Bush said earlier this month when he unveiled his new American Competitiveness Initiative. “”So what I said to the Congress was, let’s be wise with taxpayers’ money: Let’s stay on the leading edge of technology and change, and let’s reaffirm our commitment to scientific innovation.””

Under the plan, the federal government would greatly expand funding for basic research in the physical sciences and engineering, doubling support over the next decade for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and for the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

The commitment would likely mean more money for the nation’s universities, which are the top beneficiaries of government-funded research grants. In 2005, for example, UCSD alone received 185 awards from NSF that totaled more than $64 million, ranking it 13th in the nation.

Unlike some of the president’s more divisive policy proposals, the competitiveness initiative has garnered largely bipartisan support from lawmakers.

“We applaud the president for making American innovation and competitiveness a top priority for his administration,” Association of American Universities President Nils Hasselmo stated in a written response to Bush’s plan. “While we look forward to seeing the details in his budget … the investment he is proposing in basic, university-based research can help maintain this nation’s global leadership in science and technology and produce the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

In large part, the initiative represents the government’s reaction to progressively gloomier reports warning of the country’s impending decline as a world leader in creativity and innovation. As developing nations like China and India, along with the European Union, ramp up their research-and-development spending, America has seen its leadership role slowly slip. In recent years, the nation’s share of new patents has declined, as has the proportion of scholarly articles written by American academics.

Last year’s report from a committee of the distinguished National Academies of Sciences, titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” attracted the most attention.

“Having reviewed trends in the United States and abroad, the committee is deeply concerned that the scientific and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength,” the report warned.

However, skeptics of the president’s plan have quickly pointed out that much of it simply repackages many of Bush’s previous proposals under a different name. For example, much of the proposed funding increases would go to pay for research in the areas of energy and national security, while the president’s commitment to increase qualified math and science teachers has been part of many earlier initiatives, including the No Child Left Behind Act. And the competitiveness initiative calls on Congress to make permanent the nation’s research and experimentation federal tax credit, another one of the president’s pet projects.

Outside of the three agencies targeted for funding boosts, in fact, most of the government’s research organs will still likely see their budgets stay flat or even fall over the next several years. Under the president’s 2007 budget proposal, unveiled last week, funding for the National Institutes of Health — the primary source of money for biological research — would stay flat, after declining in 2006 for the first time in 36 years.

Between 1998 and 2003, seen as the recent golden age for American R&D spending, the NIH saw its budget double — a period of time half the length of the president’s proposal.

In fact, aside from big increases to pay for space vehicles, weapon systems and new energy sources, federal commitment to research would actually fall next year for the first time since 1966, according to an analysis prepared by Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In announcing his proposal, Bush compared the competitiveness initiative to efforts of the federal government in the 1960s to leap ahead of the Soviet Union, after the successful launch of Sputnik, the world’s first manmade satellite.

“[Those] measures, for the most part, failed,” stated Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute, in a press release that compared Bush’s focus on boosting math and science education to the previous efforts. “Normally, when history repeats itself, it is supposed to be first as tragedy and then as farce. President Bush has managed both at once, by believing — against all evidence — that the best way to improve education is through central planning.”

At his peak, Edison came close to meeting his promise, averaging a patent every 11 days and inventing “big things” like the phonograph and the filament for the incandescent light bulb. Bush, though, will likely have a harder time: His 10-year plan would require support from the next two presidential administrations and from Congress, which has a history of loading appropriation bills for the government’s research bodies with special earmarks and pork projects.