In a public lecture at Fermilab on Wednesday, Norman Augustine explained how the findings of the National Academies' October report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, boiled down to two unavoidable realities. "[First] Individual prosperity in our nation, or any nation, depends to a very large degree on people having jobs, good jobs…" he said. "Second, we concluded that the existence of quality jobs in the decades ahead is very likely to depend on new developments in science and engineering."
The committee, composed of Nobel Laureates, university presidents, corporate CEOs and others, considered eight independent studies on societal returns on public investment in science and technology. According to Augustine, one of these studies attributed 50-85 percent of US GDP growth during the last half century to science and technology, and noted these fields could have an even greater impact in the years ahead. He cited another study that attributed the formation of 4,000 new companies, and a full 1.1 million new jobs to graduate student research done within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alone, in the past decade. "It's been only half jokingly said that today a third of the GDP is attributable to quantum mechanics," he said.
Augustine warned of the impact of what's been called the "death of distance" on America's ability to compete in these fields. As new communications technology allows increasingly complex jobs to be handled from abroad, Americans face job competition not only from within their community, but from around the world. Augustine gave examples of American CAT scans read in India, American taxes prepared in Costa Rica, and blueprints for American buildings drawn by architects in Malaysia, among others. "There is no longer a 'there' there," he said, referring to the fact that jobs no longer depend on the location of the worker. He quoted academy member and former Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder, stating that 50 million, or about one third of today's US jobs are susceptible to being moved over seas. "It's been said that a recession is when your neighbor is out of work, and a depression is when you are out of work," said Augustine. "To many Americans who thought their jobs were safe; this new competitiveness trend is starting to look a bit like a depression."
The report recommended that the US invest more in math and science education, and contribute more money toward basic research in order to stay competitive. Augustine noted that we are currently living off past investment; in 2001, US industry spent more money on court litigation than on research and development, and a full 38 percent of PhD's working in the fields of physical science and engineering are foreign-born. "One study attributes it to a lack of inspiration in grade school," said Augustine. "As Phys. Ed teachers are asked to teach physics, they are not enthusiastic about it [science] and this [lack of enthusiasm] translates."
The good news came near the end of Augustine's talk. He said that a number of the committee's recommendations, including increased funding for qualified math and science teachers and greater investment in basic research were mentioned in the president's State of the Union address and adopted in his budget. Bills to implement the recommendations--with 35 Democrat and 35 Republican co-sponsors in the senate--are now pending in both the house and the senate. The plan is to invest $9 billion in the next fiscal year, and $19 billion over the next five. "It's a big investment," said Augustine. "[But] there is great urgency because of the pace at which science and engineering moves forward. Things slip quickly into obsolescence…it's a lot of money, but can we afford not to spend it?"
Streaming video of Augustine lecture