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Reauthorize America COMPETES Act With Full Funding for R&D | Commentary

Before his death, Steve Jobs gave America a good reminder. “Innovation,” he said, “distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

If America is going to be a leader in the 21st-century economy, we need to raise our game. We can do so by enacting an agenda to provide more consistent funding for research and development, expanding resources for our entrepreneurs and tech startups, building on successful public-private partnerships with our leading research institutions, and investing in science, technology, engineering and math education.

Recently, my colleagues and I in the New Democrat Coalition laid out an agenda to make these priorities real as part of the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act.

First passed in 2007, America COMPETES lends assistance to cutting-edge technology research and development throughout the country. The bill was inspired by “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a study published by the National Academy of Sciences, which argues that “without a renewed effort to bolster the foundations of our competitiveness, we can expect to lose our privileged position.”

The “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” authors — in their initial report and in a follow-up — point to some stark facts that suggest our nation is lagging in research-and-development funding, STEM education and commercialization of research. According to the report, over the past 40 years, the federal government’s funding of R&D as a fraction of gross domestic product has declined by 60 percent. The total annual investment the federal government makes in math, science and engineering research, at the time the report was issued, was equal to the increase in U.S. health costs every nine weeks. In fact, Americans spend more on potato chips than our government devotes to energy R&D.

At the same time, while Congress has allowed partisan bickering to lead to shutdowns and sequestration that have exacerbated these concerning trends, other nations aren’t sitting still. To wit, China has multiplied fivefold its number of higher-education institutions in the past decade.

The conclusions are stark: If America doesn’t put real investments into R&D and STEM education, we can’t count on being the premiere players in the global innovation game.

We’ve seen this play out before — in a different time, when Congress rose to the challenge in a bipartisan fashion. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, signaling a clear lead in the space race. Congress replied by doubling R&D spending and tripling support for basic research. It put science education efforts on steroids. We’re still seeing the benefits of these investments today: Every time we use the touch screen on a smartphone or a tablet, we’re using technology that was pioneered by NASA research.

The question before us now is will we continue to allow those Sputnik moments to happen every day without our nation stepping up?

My answer, and the New Democrat Coalition’s answer, is a clear “no.” As America COMPETES moves through the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, our members will work to ensure that our commonsense agenda is included in the final bill. Our plan would ensure that America keeps the lead in the race toward the next great technological boom. If we don’t, we’ll get our backsides handed to us.

If we do invest, the benefits to our economic recovery and future growth could be enormous. Research creates jobs. More than half of America’s GDP growth depends on advancements in science and technology. Consider this statistic from the Treasury Department: 70 percent of every dollar American companies use to claim the research-and-development tax credit goes directly to salaries. That’s to say nothing of the ripples of economic growth and job creation that come from research and innovative public-private partnerships with universities.

When I worked at the Economic Development Board in Tacoma, I had a sign up in my office that said, “We are competing with everyone, everywhere, every day, forever.” That’s a pretty good ethic — not just for economic development in Washington State, but for our nation’s efforts to compete in the global marketplace. Congress must bolster the strength of our research infrastructure to keep our economic recovery moving forward.

Rep. Derek Kilmer represents Washington’s 6th District. He is a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the moderate New Democrat Coalition.

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