When President Bush proposed to enhance U.S. "competitiveness" by doubling federal spending on research in the physical sciences over the next decade, adding 100,000 math and science teachers to the nation's high schools, and making the research-and-development tax credit permanent, he set off a predictable bidding war on Capitol Hill.
This latest feeding frenzy began when the National Academies of Sciences and the Council on Competitiveness published studies arguing that Americans must develop more of a taste for advanced math and science instruction to keep high-tech jobs in the U.S. In South Korea, 38 percent of all undergraduates receive degrees in natural science or engineering. In France, the figure is 47 percent, in China, 50 percent, and in Singapore, 67 percent. The corresponding U.S. figure? 15 percent.
The President's proposal was estimated to cost taxpayers $52 billion over the next four years (mostly because of the R & D tax credit). Lawmakers eager to hitch a ride on the competitiveness train, however, quickly jettisoned the proposed tax incentives and grew the pot to nearly $61 billion for new or expanded federal programs, virtually all of which duplicate existing federal activities.
The bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill is that, to boost U.S. competitiveness, federal bureaucrats must have unfettered authority to make decisions best left to the free market, including which young scientists warrant federal assistance, what research is truly innovative, and what has the potential to enhance our global competitiveness.
Take federal programs to train math and science teachers -- please. Uncle Sam currently runs more than 100 such programs, but apparently that's not enough. Last week, in a sop to the competitiveness agenda, the Senate overwhelmingly approved $190 million for new summer teacher training programs, $210 million for more post-graduate training, $58 million to teach more math and science courses in low-performing schools, $424 million to a different agency for the same purpose, $595 million for undergraduate scholarships for aspiring math and science teachers, and so on.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was one of the few senators who grasped the futility of this legislative exercise. "There is no need," he argued, "for us to be spending billions and billions of dollars to encourage Americans to be better at math and science if the research and development is moving to other countries."