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Reasserting Competitiveness
Invest in education, research, and innovation, says Charles Vest.

Dear Mr. President:

Your ability to govern effectively and provide world leadership will depend profoundly on advancing and utilizing the knowledge and tools of science, engineering, and medicine.

In the 20th century, U.S. achievement in these fields protected our nation’s security, fueled most of our economic growth, and nearly doubled our life span. It sent us to the moon, fed the planet, brought world events into our living rooms, established instant worldwide communications, gave rise to ubiquitous new forms of art and entertainment, uncovered the workings of our natural world, and gave us freedom of travel by air, sea, and land. It was a century of speed, power, and new horizons. We have come to take all this for granted.

The 21st century will be very different. And nothing can be taken for granted. To grasp the great opportunities of our times and to meet our challenges in a number of areas–from economic competitiveness to energy, from health care to education, from security to infrastructure–federal policy and action must be informed and enabled by a vibrant science and technology enterprise.

Indeed, our national comparative advantage is a strong science and technology base ­coupled with a free-market economy and a democratic society.

We will soon feel the full force of global competition. Jobs will follow innovation wherever it is found, and innovation will follow basic research. Our children must be inspired and educated for productive, well-paying jobs in this knowledge economy.

The bipartisan America Competes Act was passed and signed into law in August 2007 but has not been funded. It would jump-start improvement in K-12 science and math education, strengthen and sustain long-term basic research, make the U.S. the best place in the world to study and do research, and help ensure that we remain the most innovative nation on the planet. Its cost is about 0.14 percent of the Wall Street bailout or 1.8 percent of the annual farm subsidy.

Mr. President, the federal government must invest in our future through education, research, and innovation. I therefore believe you should take six immediate actions:

(1) Use your bully pulpit to establish a public vision of an America that will lead and prosper in the 21st century through knowledge and innovation.

(2) Appoint a science and technology advisor before your inauguration and include him or her at the highest tables of counsel and decision making, just like the national security advisor.

(3) Make full funding of the America Competes Act a nonnegotiable first-term priority.

(4) Establish a bold national initiative engaging the private sector, academia, and government to meet our energy challenge and mitigate the advance of global climate disruption.

(5) Restore strong basic-research budgets to the Department of Defense and increase the National Institutes of Health’s budget in excess of inflation.

(6) Work with Congress to eliminate academic earmarking.

My colleagues in industry, academia, and government stand ready to support your new administration with fact-based advice and to provide the knowledge and innovation required for U.S. prosperity and improved life around the world.

Charles M. Vest is President Emeritus of MIT and President of The National Academy of ­Engineering.

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Credit: Harry Campbell

Tagged: Business, energy, medicine, technology, research, health care, science

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