Current trends in research investment and workforce development are early warning signs that the United States could fall behind other nations, both in its capacity for technological innovation and in the size, quality, and capability of its technical workforce. Unless the United States maintains its resident capacity for technological innovation, as well as its ability to attract the best and brightest engineers and scientists from abroad, the economic benefits of technological advances may not accrue to Americans.
We must take action immediately to overcome existing imbalances in support for research to address emerging critical challenges. These actions must include both changes in direction by key stakeholders in the engineering research enterprise and bold new programs designed specifically to promote U.S. technological innovation. This conclusion echoes the findings of other recent assessments by the Council on Competitiveness (2001, 2004), President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2002, 2004a,b), National Science Board (2003), National Academies (COSEPUP, 2002; NAE, 2003, 2004, 2005; NRC, 2001), and other distinguished bodies (DOE, 2003; National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, 2000).
Considering the magnitude and complexity of the challenges ahead in energy, security, health care, the environment, and economic competitiveness, we simply do not have the option of continuing to conduct business as usual. We must change how we prioritize, fund, and conduct research; how we attract, educate, and train engineers and scientists; how we consider and implement policies and legal structures that affect intellectual property rights and related issues; and how we maximize contributions from institutions engaged in technological innovation and workforce development (e.g., universities, corporate R&D laboratories, federal agencies, and national laboratories).
Of course, major undertakings in anticipation of opportunities are always difficult, but the United States has a history of rising to the occasion in times of need. At least twice before in times of great challenge and opportunity, the federal government responded in creative ways that not only served the needs of society, but also reshaped institutions. Consider, for example, the Land Grant Acts in the nineteenth century, which not only modernized American agriculture and spearheaded America’s response to the industrial revolution, but also led to the creation of the great public universities that have transformed American society and sustained U.S. leadership in the production of new knowledge and the creation of human capital. Another example is the G.I. Bill and government-university research partnerships during the 1940s that were instrumental in establishing U.S. economic and military leadership.
With this history in mind, and with full recognition of the magnitude of the effort needed to prepare the United States for long-term technological leadership, the committee offers the following recommendations.