Ho, hum, another…

competitiveness report. Actually, some of the 10 recommendations scared up by this high quality National Academies committee seem to have some merit, and overall it’s far less naive (and annoying) than the recent effort by the Council on Competitiveness.UPDATE AND MINOR EDITS May 25, 2006 — It is, of course, this National Academies report, not the earlier COC work, that has become the basis of the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative. The House Science Committee has a nice overview.

However — and let’s be frank about this — the National Academies Report advances the interests of the research universities and large, sophisticated technology companies that participated in the committee and lent it time as advisors. It has almost no content of real interest to small technology businesses, nor any sophisticated appreciation of the cultural and political context of innovation (or education, for that matter). Let’s walk through the top 10 recommended actions (titles truncated) with some thoughts about what’s there and what’s missing.

Recruit ten thousand teachers…
Certainly we need K-12 teachers with competence in math, science and engineering who are cross-certified as teachers, but however well deserved the knock at traditional teachers’ colleges and “ed” degrees, this is simply a plea for more scholarship funds. Private nonprofit programs like Teach for America are doing a lot of this already, and arguably represent better routes for public support. Really, couldn’t they do any better for their top priority for federal action?

Strengthen two hundred fifty thousand teachers’ skills…
Again, fair enough, but again who runs those summer institutes and master’s programs? The research universities!

Enlarge the pipelineOK, we need more AP students. Is the best we can do statewide specialty high schools? That means only 50! Is the best we can do an incremental 2,000 summer internship opportunities for middle and high school students? Not that I necessarily think the federal government has a big role to play in achieving this goal, but really the vision is pretty pinched. What about improving the capabilities of the thousands and thousands of neighborhood school where (poor) kids with talent every bit as strong as that of the elite school graduates are left to founder without facilities, mentors, program opportunities. Say what you will about it, but at least the 1983 Nation at Risk report took an expansive view of the societal challenge. This is mechanistic and blind to the larger social forces at work.

Increase the federal investment in long-term basic research
Grow it 10 percent a year over 7 years? That’s a doubling in case your calculator isn’t handy, but did you doubt that? It’s not that NSF doesn’t deserve what NIH got as a result of the Gingrich promise, but in the current environment, is this really to happen without any re-programming or sacrifice? Without any mention of the role that university-requested pork plays in sapping resources for good science? Hmm…

Provide new research grants of $500,000 each annually, payable over 5 years, to 200 of our most outstanding early-career researchers
Possibly worthy, but it’s sure handy — relieving universities as it does of the responsiblity for raising philanthropically their own startup and bridge packages.

Institute a National Coordination Office for Research Infrastructure to manage a centralized research infrastructure fund of $500 million per year over the next 5 years
Probably the strongest idea of the bunch, provided the program is designed to require leverage. Even $500 million doesn’t go very far when you’re building large, interdisciplinary research complexes, or even acquiring major equipment. Not sure about that coordination thing, though.

Allocate at least 8% of the budgets of federal research agencies to discretionary funding
I have no problem with this, provided it’s offset by reductions in either pork or pre-programmed research spending in federal laboratories, and peer reviewed with more than usual attention to avoiding log-rolling and old-boy network group-think.

Create in DOE an organization like the Defense Advanced Research Project[sic] Agency (DARPA)…
Gee, not a bad idea, but who thinks that DOE as currently configured can pull this off? Well, it’s probably worth challenging them. But again, on an offset basis.

Institute a Presidential Innovation Award to stimulate scientific and engineering advances in the national interest
Well, OK, but let’s be careful with the topicality that’s being proposed. Wouldn’t want to have granted an award for cold fusion, eh — at least not yet. Frankly, if politicians really cared about innovation in the first place, they wouldn’t need new awards to recognize it.

Increase the number and proportion of US citizens who earn physical and life sciences, engineering, and mathematics bachelor’s degrees by providing 25,000 new 4-year undergraduate scholarships each year…and Increase the number of US citizens pursuing gradaute study “in areas of national need” by funding 5,000 new graduate fellowships each year
It’s university scholarship handout time again. PUH-LEASE. If we want more people to enter these careers, let’s start paying them better (not a federal decision) and stop undermining the perceived stability of these careers by oversaturating the Ph.D. market and continually outsourcing even the highest skilled jobs.

Provide a federal tax credit to encourage employers to make contnuing education available…
Well, it’s nice they concede this education could be provided either by universities or other providers (even, uggh, community colleges), but I wonder which providers the committee had in mind?

Continue to improve visa processing for international students and scholarsand Provide a 1-year automatic visa extension to international students who receive doctorates or equivalent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics…to remain in the United States to seek employment…and Institute a new skills-based, preferential immigration optionand Reform the current system of “deemed exports.”
Yes, let’s stick our head in the sand about the real reasons only international students want to do S&E graduate work in American universities, and just fill the need with visas. Oh, and that’s fine too with employers who want to keep such wages as they pay in the U.S. depressed. And then let’s lament and wonder aloud why we have so many lawyers and so few techically trained professional master’s holders. Oh, and if we end up exporting knowledge to our geopolitical competitors, so be it…it’s a global economy, right?

Enhance intellectual property protection for the 21st century global economyCertainly it’s a mess at PTO right now. Is more money the way to cure it? I don’t know. Switching to first-to-file may be one of the stronger recomendations, of potential interest to small technology innovators in their ongoing contests with major corporations, but I’m not sure, and I’d appreciate comments from others.

Enact a stronger research and development tax credit to encourage private investment in innovationand Provide tax incentives for United Tates-based innovation
I guess tax incentives are always of interest to large firms like those that cooperated with the Academies. I’m sympathetic but skeptical. Risk-adjusted, the rate of return for truly innovative R&D rarely meets the corporate hurdle rate and I’m not sure rebating even a huge percentage of the cost makes a big difference.

Ensure ubiquitous broadband Internet access
No mention of the current movement in state capitals by incumbent carriers to block municipalities doing just that.You be the judge. Whose interests were served by these recommendations? Will they come close to implementation?

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