Second Place America?

2019-05-21T15:16:51+00:00 May 21, 2019|
(Credit: Rhonda Baer/National Cancer Institute)

(Credit: Rhonda Baer/National Cancer Institute)

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was

The Task Force on American Innovation (TFAI) held a congressional briefing to mark the release of their 2019 benchmark report, Second Place America? Increasing Challenges to U.S. Scientific Leadership. Experts with experience in academia, industry, government, and nonprofit organizations discussed the main points of the report, as well as their reactions to its finding.

Why It Matters

In their 2019 report, TFAI showed that the United States has either fallen behind or will soon fall behind competitor nations in global leadership of science and technology. According to the report, the United States faces major challenges in terms of research and development (R&D); science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education; and the scientific workforce. However, while other nations are increasing their investments in these areas to support innovation, the United States is not — particularly for ocean science, for which funding has been decreasing relative to gross domestic product since 1972. To keep up with other nations’ scientific enterprises and support our own economic growth, the United States must address these shortcomings.

Key Points

As the panel contemplated the myriad challenges to the United States’ science and technology leadership, they agreed that maintaining or regaining our competitive advantage will require more effective partnerships between industry, academia, and the federal government. Mr. Eric Fanning (President and CEO, Aerospace Industries Association), speaking as someone who has worked in both government and industry, underscored the importance of federal investment in basic research. While industry funds and develops applied research, they are often building on basic research from government or academia that originally had few incentives for industry to pursue, he explained. Unified cooperation between these groups, panelists said, will maximize investment impact and help to combat what they see as the main threats to our scientific leadership.

The panel was in consensus that sustaining and growing America’s science and technology workforce is one of the biggest issues our scientific enterprise faces, with Mr. Fanning referring to it as the “biggest strategic concern” to American innovation. Panelists pointed to several current and upcoming threats to sustaining the education-workforce pipeline. Mr. John Neuffer (President and CEO, Semiconductor Industry Association) spoke on the large number of jobs that remain unfilled in some STEM industries, while Dr. Michael McQuade (Vice President for Research, Carnegie Mellon University) cited the report’s finding that American 15-year-olds are less STEM-literate than many of their foreign counterparts, with comprehension scores falling well below those of the top-performing countries. According to the panel, this trend could portend a growing deficit of the STEM workforce — if students are either not interested in STEM learning, or do not have skills comparable to their international counterparts when reaching post-secondary institutions, they are less likely to successfully pursue a STEM career.

To address this, panelists urged more investment in K-12 STEM engagement, particularly by offering hands-on programs and opportunities for young people to learn what a life and career in science could look like. Dr. Nadya Bliss (Director, Global Security Initiative, Arizona State University) also noted there are additional barriers to getting and retaining underrepresented communities into STEM fields, emphasizing that investments should focus on making sure anyone who wants to receive a STEM education has the resources to do so. Retention of foreign-born scientists, panelists explained, is just as important as growing and maintaining our domestic talent. Dr. McQuade and Mr. Neuffer suggested that incentivizing researchers from peer, near-peer, and competitor nations who receive post-secondary degrees in the United States to stay would help maintain and grow the American scientific enterprise.

The panel urged, not only for increased, sustained, predictable, and reliable federal investments, but for a change to our funding model. Competitor nations, such as China, do not follow the same funding model as the United States, allowing them to plan for long-term investment in a way that our nation cannot. The panel agreed that if the United States wishes to stay a global leader in R&D, it must commit to revising its funding model.


“Investment in research is only one of the solutions, but it’s an important one.” — Tobin Smith (Vice President for Policy, Association for American Universities)

“We benefit from the global enterprise — the free exchange of information is good for innovation and competition.” — Dr. Michael McQuade (Vice President for Research, Carnegie Mellon University)

“Culturally, as a country, we need to have scientific role models for kids. We need to show them what a life in science can be.” — Dr. Nadya Bliss (Director, Global Security Initiative, Arizona State University)

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