Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Less than a year ago, I wrote an op-ed observing that “hydrogen-car” mania, having reached a fever pitch on Capitol Hill, had members of Congress firmly under its spell. That was then; and despite the $1.1 billion already spent on hydrogen-related programs, lawmakers have finally come to the realization that an affordable hydrogen car remains at least 20 years away.

Today, the tune is eerily similar, but the chant has become “competitiveness, competitiveness, competitiveness.” President Bush identified competitiveness as a priority in his State of the Union address, declaring this initiative essential to future economic growth. Its key goals are to increase federal spending on critical research and to refocus the attention of today’s public education system on mathematics and science — worthy goals indeed. But before Congress rushes forward with an expensive legislative package, this agenda deserves thorough review.

For the benefit of current and future generations, the primary focus of government-sponsored research should be to answer questions in the most fundamental of areas: science and mathematics. Perhaps the best model for this approach can be found within the National Science Foundation (NSF), which dedicates its funding to high quality, peer-reviewed, merit-based projects. As mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes declared, “Each problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems.” Investing in basic science — that which is driven by curiosity to expand knowledge and has no immediate marketable value — will lead to solutions to fundamental puzzles that today stifle general scientific progress.

The role of the federal government on the education side of the competitiveness agenda is somewhat limited. With few exceptions, engaging young students’ minds in the study of mathematics and science occurs very early in the education process. To know whether students in a particular school district will be interested in science and mathematics, we need only look at the commitment of the local school board or school district and its willingness to challenge students in a range of disciplines. Challenging students through a strong curriculum and with dedicated teachers, rather than new programs, is a better path to educational success.

As this debate moves forward, any legislation designed to promote American competitiveness and innovation should adhere to the following rules to ensure that American taxpayer dollars are not wasted or misused:

n Focus on the basics. Federal funding for research and development should be applied toward basic science and technology, (such as chemistry, physics, material science and computational mathematics) rather than applied research, technology transfer or commercialization efforts. The private sector — not the federal government — has the obligation to advance the findings of basic research into marketable products and technologies. Equally troubling, legislators await the movement of a competitiveness bill in hopes they may attach pet research projects or fund a favored industry. Politicizing the process only undermines the integrity of peer review and dilutes the effectiveness of these resources.

n Don’t over-promise. To date, Senate competitiveness bills are littered with increased authorization levels for various purposes. Billions of dollars would be needed to actually fund programs at such inflated levels. Given this scenario, reasonable authorization levels must be utilized to ensure that funding can actually be secured through the appropriations process. It would not be beneficial to repeat an example from 2002, when Congress reauthorized the NSF with the goal of doubling its annual funding. Ultimately, NSF appropriations never approached such levels.

n Limit new programs. Like so many other sound-bite driven “debates” in Congress, competitiveness proposals often boil down to the usual simplistic solution: Create more government programs. How many times do we have to go down this same costly road? And when was the last time we dealt effectively with a complex problem by creating new federal programs? One Senate bill would create more than 20 new programs without eliminating a single one. Dozens already exist, including the Advanced Technology Program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and other questionable expenditures of funds. Congress should not create new programs without a thorough review of the value and efficacy of existing programs. Otherwise, we are merely diverting funding to new programs and layers of bureaucracy when such money could be used on basic research.

n Make hard decisions. Once realistic authorization levels are established, Congress needs to make the necessary adjustments to ensure funding increases actually occur. Spending billions on a competitiveness agenda through deficit spending restricts future economic growth, and stunts future innovation and competitiveness. If we are to increase funding for a competitiveness agenda, legislation needs to include necessary rescissions and program repeals to remain budget neutral.

n Don’t play favorites. Given the popularity of a competitiveness initiative, it is disappointing that agencies integrally involved in basic research are being ignored. For instance, NASA’s basic science mission, referred to by many as its crown jewel, results in significant scientific findings. Ironically, the administration recently proposed that planned spending for these accounts be cut by more than $3 billion over the next few years, a decision NASA Administrator Michael Griffin admitted was made solely for budgetary reasons. How is this internally consistent for the administration?

If done for the right reasons, a successful plan to invest new resources in scientific research can have a positive impact. Without discipline and focus, however, Congress is doomed to repeat the same mistakes, fund more failed programs and expand federal bureaucracy.

America’s technology-driven economy grows despite, not because of, government intervention. That is a lesson we all need to learn before trying to “fix” what ails us.

Sen. John Sununu, New Hampshire Republican, is a member of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation and Competitiveness.

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