A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced a package of bills aimed at promoting scientific education and research in the United States. The lawmakers say America needs to focus more money on science and innovation, in order to stay competitive in the world.
In the 1950's, the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik spurred greater interest in the United States in promoting science and technology. These days, although the need is similar, according to Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman, there is no concrete event for Americans to rally around.
"This challenge is not as easy to get people mobilized to respond to because this is not a Sputnik that we are faced with here. But it is a series of trends that are going against us, with regards to science and engineering and math education and talent," he said.
Some of these signs include low scores for American students in tests of general knowledge in math and science, compared to students in other countries. Meantime, nations like China and India produce more engineers than the United States.
These worrying trends led Senator Bingaman to co-sponsor a package of three bills to "protect America's competitive edge," better known as the PACE Act.
The legislation would implement 20 recommendations contained in an October report by the National Academy of Sciences. These suggestions range from strengthening U.S. commitment to research and recruiting more science and math teachers to providing economic incentives for innovation.
The chair of the National Academy of Sciences report, Norman Augustine, described the issue as one of "considerable urgency." "You really have to move to keep up with the pace of technology today. So, we think America is at a crossroads. We can either create jobs and innovate. Or we can see our jobs evaporate, and it's about that simple," he said.
Meanwhile, another of the act's co-sponsors, Republican Senator Pete Domenici, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, acknowledged that the biggest difficulty may be finding the money to fund the bill's first year price tag of at least $9.5 billion.
"The problem is going to be funding, not support. Support for the ideas will be there. That's not enough," he said.
But co-sponsor Republican Senator Lamar Alexander added that he believes the expenditure is a necessary investment.
"If we only spend money on war, welfare, social security, debt, hurricanes and disasters and flu, we're not going to have an economy strong enough to pay the bill for those urgent needs. So, it's a small price for a high standard of living," he said.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers - U.S.A., a group that has 235,000 members, applauded the PACE Act. The group urged Congress and the White House to act quickly on the legislation, saying the future of U.S. technological leadership is one of the most important issues facing the United States.