WASHINGTON — The U.S. government must take immediate action to enhance science education from kindergarten onward to secure the country's economic and technological leadership, a National Academies panel of scientists, educators and business leaders said.
With so much knowledge and low-cost labor available around the world, U.S. advantages in the marketplace and in science and technology have begun to erode, the panel said. To preserve the nation's "strategic and economic security," the group said, a coordinated federal effort is needed to create industries offering higher-wage jobs.
The National Academies comprises several independent agencies that give advice to the government on scientific, engineering and medical issues. The panel's report, released this week, was put together at the request of Congress.
"We are still the largest research-oriented economy in the world," said panel member P. Roy Vagelos, former chairman of Merck & Co. "But we're aging. Our technical infrastructure is aging."
The panel attributed U.S. global leadership in the 20th century to scientific achievement, saying that 85% of the increase in per-capita growth could be credited to advances in technology. With countries such as India and China taking measures to increase scientific education and research, the panel worries that the U.S. advantage will drastically diminish.
"These other countries have studied the long-term success of the U.S. economy and have recognized that we have great universities," Vagelos said. "They're copying what they think we did to succeed."
Other nations will "continue to have the competitive advantage of a low-wage structure," the panel said, making it even more crucial that the U.S. invest so it can maintain its lead in science and technology.
The group called for a series of initiatives -- which could cost as much as $10 billion a year -- that includes doubling the federal government's research budget by fixed amounts over the next seven years.
The panel warned that if immediate action was not taken, the U.S. could lose many high-skilled jobs to other countries. For example, the report says, U.S. universities graduated about 70,000 engineers in 2004. India produced about 350,000 engineers that year, and China graduated 600,000.
"China has been investing just tremendous amounts of money into [its] programs," said Richard C. Levin, president of Yale University. "Their aspiration level is just so high. They want to be right at the front with the U.S."
Identifying the nation's need for high-quality jobs and reliable and affordable energy as the two primary challenges facing the U.S., the panel structured its summary around four recommendations:
* Improve science and math education in elementary and secondary schools by annually recruiting 10,000 teachers in those areas with four-year college scholarships.
* Sustain and strengthen the federal commitment to basic research by, among other things, increasing funding, awarding research grants to young scientists and creating an agency in the Energy Department for "out-of-the-box" thinking on energy issues.
* Make the U.S. the most attractive place for research by funding scholarships and fellowships in the sciences for U.S. citizens, and by making it easer for talented foreign scholars to get visas and residence permits to work here.
* Ensure that the U.S. becomes the best place in the world for innovation by modernizing the patent system, rewriting tax policies to foster innovation and assuring affordable broadband Internet access.
The report is available online at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11463.html.