The health of the IT industry and other technical fields -- and the broader challenge of the United States remaining competitive against emerging foreign powers -- depends to a great extent on the government's ability to facilitate basic research and bolster education, witnesses told a Senate panel on Wednesday.
The Senate Commerce Committee convened what could be its last hearing of the session to evaluate the implementation of the America COMPETES Act, a foundational element of the federal support provided for research and development and STEM education.
The 2007 bill, which was reauthorized in January 2011, channels funding to a variety of federal agencies involved in promoting science and technology, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation.
"Our economy today is to a very large degree underpinned by advancements in science and engineering," Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, told the committee. "If Americans cannot compete for those jobs, and we're becoming less and less competitive as every day passes, we won't have the income to pay the taxes to provide for national security or healthcare. We won't have the money to provide for education."
Augustine, who chaired the working group that produced a report that laid the groundwork for the drafting of the America COMPETES Act, said he considers the bill "of the utmost importance" and called it "one of the finest examples of bipartisanship & that we have seen in recent years."
But the implementation of the bill has been slowed by ongoing funding shortages, a challenge that has only been magnified by rising concern over the ballooning federal deficit, as well as the prospect of a deep set of automatic spending cuts set to take effect in January if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on a plan for deficit reduction.
Supporting IT Innovation and Research Keeps U.S. Globally Competitive
At Wednesday's hearing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed support for the federal government's role in supporting basic research and development (R&D) -- the sort that can take years or even decades to incubate a commercially viable product, if one even emerges, creating a risk-reward ratio that is too high for many companies to tolerate.
Committee chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.V.) pointed out that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were working under NSF funding in 1994 at Stanford as they were developing the technology that would come to power the world's leading search engine. Google, Rockefeller pointed out, did not go public for another decade.
"These are inherently, obviously, all long-term investments," Rockefeller said. "Success takes time."
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the ranking member of Commerce Committee who is retiring at the end of her term in January, urged against taking an axe to the research programs provided for in the America COMPETES Act. Hutchison emphasized that current government-wide spending levels are unsustainable, but argued that support for basic R&D and STEM education programs are essential to the country's economic future and should be preserved even in a lean budget.
"Obviously we're in a budgetary crisis and we all understand that," she said, calling for a "top line" for spending, measured as a percentage of gross domestic product. "When we set that cap, we need to ensure that we're investing in areas that are seed corn for the future."
Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, likewise appealed to the lawmakers to preserve funding for the research and education provisions of the COMPETES Act, framing his pitch in terms of the United States' competitive standing in the global economy.
"While the U.S. has demonstrated time and again the robustness of its IT innovation ecosystem, its current strength is not a guaranteed right, but the result of [an] American vision of sustained investment. The COMPETES Act is a key element of this," Lee said, stressing the value of the long-term research that often draws funding from federal programs.
"Decades of basic research in coding theory ultimately enabled today's smartphones, streaming video and an array of communications technologies," he said. "And at Microsoft, our products and services today build on a pipeline of research advances in areas such as machine learning, distributed systems and computer graphics."
Supporting Tech Education to Create and Preserve Top IT Talent
But perhaps even more important than preserving research activities is the status of education programs in technical fields. Some witnesses observed that too often courses in mathematics or the hard sciences are led by teachers who don't have degrees or certifications in those subjects.
Like many technology companies, Microsoft struggles to recruit top technical talent, the product of rigorous education programs in computer science or other disciplines. Lee noted the more than 3,000 technical positions open at the company, suggesting that the legislation in question had improved computer science programs at the level of higher education, but that primary and secondary schools continue to lag behind.
"In computing education specifically, we've continued to see over the last five years of COMPETES a very good increase in enrollments and undergraduate programs in computer science. But that hasn't been reflected in high school," Lee said. "Federal agencies should support efforts to expand computing education, particularly at the K through 12 level."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.