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. American Research Facing Growing Challenge

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Dallas (UPI) Jun 29, 2004
The president of one of the nation's leading research universities said Tuesday the United States must make a new commitment to basic research if it is to stay ahead of growing global competition in science and engineering.

Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told a forum on the need for more federal funding that the war on terror, the uneven economy and the federal budget deficit have weakened government resolve to invest in basic research.

Jackson warned that a perfect storm is building in U.S. research and that the nation could lose its distinction as the world's leader in science and engineering if the federal government doesn't make more of an investment.

Jackson also said an untapped source of new U.S. talent resides in the nation's growing minority population and young women, which she calls the new majority. About 80 percent of today's scientists and engineers are white, and 75 percent of them are men.

To arrest the perfect storm we need a full-fledged national commitment to invest in basic research, in science and engineering, she said. We need a national commitment to reignite the interest in science and mathematics of all of our children and a national commitment to identify, nurture, mentor and support the talent that resides in our new majority population.

Federal funding of research and development has declined an average of 2 1/2 percent per year since its peak in 1965, said Robert Helms, dean of engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas. Interest in U.S. engineering has dropped 30 percent.

Jackson, who is also president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that basic research is vital to the future of the nation. She said half of the economic growth of the past five decades has been due to advances in technology.

We are at a critical juncture, she said. This is happening when we should be investing more, not less.

Jackson added that research has an important role in maintaining the nation's security and dealing with the causes of terrorism, particularly in the Third World, by helping nations improve their food, health and infrastructure.

Robert Doering, a senior fellow and technology strategy manager at Texas Instruments, explained how important research has been to the growth of the Dallas company.

Computer chips have strengthened national defense and economic growth, he said, and they have the most value of any of the U.S. manufacturing industries.

It creates lots of jobs, Doering said. We have about a quarter million jobs in the United States in the semi-conductor industry. These are high-quality, good-paying jobs, and we are not about to export all of them overseas as you read about in papers and news magazines.

But Jackson warned there is a perfect storm on the horizon because U.S. scientists are aging, post-Sept. 11 immigration rules are discouraging foreign students from entering the United States, Asian nations are turning out more and more graduates, and U.S. students are less interested in the field.

Helms, the dean of the UTD engineering school and a former high-tech executive, said one of the challenges is to turn on today's kids to science and mathematics. In his day, he said, the U.S. space program turned him on to science.

We've got to get kids jazzed to be the scientists and engineers of tomorrow, he told the forum organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Helms said robotics and environmental-engineering programs are popular at his school, and the media may be the way to get students more interested in engineering by publicizing exciting science programs and events like the recent Mars missions.

Government has had an essential role in the research and development of technology dating from the telegraph to the modern-day computer, Doering said.

In addition to more government and private investment in research, Jackson said the nation needs to encourage minorities and young women to enter the field. She said together they constitute the underrepresented majority in the field.

The United States is facing growing competition in science and engineering from Asian nations, she said. The numbers of graduates are soaring in China, Taiwan and South Korea, and those nations are keeping research there.

For the first time in more than a century the United States faces greater and steadily rising competition within the global community to maintain our capacity for scientific discovery, innovation, economic development and national and global security, she said.

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