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The Fiscal Cliff Endangers America's Long-Term Lead in Technology

Dec 19, 2012   |   by Dean Joseph Helble   |   Forbes

In all the discussion of the looming “fiscal cliff,” little attention is being paid to the potentially devastating long-term implications of deep cuts in federal research spending.

If sequestration is enacted, research and development spending will be cut by 8.4%. Restricting reductions to non-defense discretionary spending, as some legislators have proposed, would cut non-defense R&D support by more than 9%, according to analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That would reduce research funding to a level not seen since 1999.

Such deep cuts would accelerate an alarming trend that has emerged over the past four decades. In 1970 non-defense R&D spending was more than 3.5% of the federal budget. By 1980 it had fallen to 2.7%. Today, even without sequestration, R&D spending is less than 2% of the budget. In contrast, the rest of the world is increasing investment in science and engineering, to fuel economic growth in a technology-driven century. Are we really willing to cede the global technology leadership position we have held for the past 60 years?

In August 2011 the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, led by Intel CEO Paul Otellini, issued a challenge to the nation: Produce 10,000 more engineering graduates per year or risk becoming irrelevant in the development of globally competitive technology-based industries.

At a time when the president and corporate leaders are calling for more engineers, cuts in our nation’s long-term investment in the science and technology infrastructure would send the wrong message to our country’s engineering undergraduate and graduate students: We don’t need or value your talents.

In fact, we need to produce far more than 10,000 more engineers per year, which represents only about 15% more than today’s number of graduates with bachelors’ degrees in engineering. That rate of increase won’t even bring us back up to the per capita level of engineers the U.S. produced 30 years ago, when an understanding of technology was far less central to economic success than it is today. An increase of 10,000 engineers is a reasonable starting point; a more appropriate goal, however, would be to produce three times that many.

We need these engineers to tackle the enormous challenges we face in energy, the environment, communications, and health care—challenges that call for better, more cost-effective and sustainable technological solutions...

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