Declaring that “America’s greatest resource for innovation and economic growth resides in American classrooms,” Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Nov. 15 unveiled her party’s five-pronged “innovation agenda,” including affordable access to broadband technology for all and incentives for students to pursue careers in science and technology.

Pelosi announced her party’s agenda at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The plan, called “Innovation Agenda: a Commitment to Competitiveness to Keep America No. 1,” was short on specifics and did not include a price tag, but it makes improved education a centerpiece of the effort to step up America’s emphasis on science and technology.

Members of the high-tech sector praised the plan’s ambitious goals. House Republicans issued a statement in response to the proposal, calling it an agenda of “higher taxation, litigation, and regulation.”

The Democrats’ plan calls for the federal government to take the following steps:

  • Create an educated, skilled workforce in the vital areas of science, math, engineering, and information technology;
  • Invest in a sustained federal research and development initiative that promotes public-private partnerships;
  • Guarantee affordable access to broadband technology for all Americans within the next five years;
  • Achieve energy independence in 10 years by developing emerging technologies for clean and sustainable alternatives that will strengthen national security and protect the environment; and
  • Provide small businesses with the tools to encourage entrepreneurial innovation and job creation.

Pelosi said the United States has departed from the leadership role in science and industry that has given the country its economic prosperity.

“World economic and innovative leadership have continually been defined by American genius,” Pelosi said. “Every advance once thought impossible has been achieved by Americans, [including] transmitting information around the world in an instant. Each of these discoveries and inventions has launched new industries, created good jobs, and triggered even further innovation.”

Pelosi told the Press Club that the world has changed dramatically “in ways that pose unprecedented challenges to [American] economic well-being.”

“The underdeveloped countries of yesterday can become the formidable competitors of tomorrow … or even today,” she said.

America’s economic prosperity is being threatened by its inability to produce graduates in, for instance, engineering, Pelosi said. The U.S. will matriculate 70,000 graduates into engineering this year, Pelosi reported, compared with 350,000 from India and 600,000 Chinese engineering graduates.

“[These countries] are making a commitment to long-term research and development. We are allowing that commitment to falter,” Pelosi said. “Our federal support of basic research peaked in 1987, and has been flat or falling ever since. . . . South Korea is an incubator for new innovation and leads the world in broadband penetration. We are now 16th in the world in broadband penetration.”

She continued: “Even if the United States were following our [historically established] blueprint for success, we would still face these challenges from abroad. But we aren’t, and that only compounds the problem.”

Improving education

The Democrats’ agenda calls for educating 100,000 new scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in the next four years. To do that, they plan to work with states, businesses, and universities to provide scholarships to qualified students who commit to working in the fields of innovation.

Russ Kelley, a representative from Pelosi’s office, said Democrats imagine establishing incentive programs similar to the Americorps program created by the Clinton administration, which offers an education award of $4,725 toward college, graduate school, or to pay back qualified student loans, plus a modest stipend, in exchange for from 10 to 12 months of full-time service. He cautioned that there is no specific dollar amount for the party’s current proposals as of yet.

House Democrats also want to ensure that highly qualified teachers are placed in every K-12 math and science classroom by offering up-front tuition assistance to talented undergraduates; paying competitive salaries to established teachers working in the fields of math and science; and enticing professional engineers and scientists from the private sector or out of retirement to become teachers.

The final element of this portion of the agenda proposes that college tuition be made tax-deductible for students studying math, science, technology, and engineering.

Kelley pointed to one model for how college tuition could be made tax-deductible: California Congressman George Miller’s Teacher Excellence for All Children (TEACH) Act of 2005.

“The act sets out goals and guidelines and ways to get there, encouraging students to take up & teaching science,” Kelley said. That bill, which has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Education Reform, revises and establishes programs relating to recruitment, preparation, distribution, and retention of public elementary and secondary school teachers and principals.

Among the elements of the proposed TEACH Act are grants for undergraduate and graduate students who agree to serve as teachers to high-need schools or in high-need fields (see story: Dems float $3.4B in new teacher aid ). The legislation also includes tax breaks for educators and administrators in high-need schools.

Pelosi said the Democratic agenda also calls for the creation of a special visa for the “best and brightest” international doctoral and postdoctoral scholars in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Scholarships are being determined by any number of different, specific entities, and it should be up to them to determine how to do that,” Kelley said. “We recognize that politicians are not necessarily the best people to be making specific scientific decisions. Leave that up to the people who know how to do it.”

More funding for research

In her speech, Pelosi said Democrats recognize that independent scientific research “provides the foundation for innovation for future technologies.”

To enable such research, House minority officials propose that funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) be doubled. Pelosi said that, under the plan, funding would be doubled for basic research in the physical sciences across all agencies.

According to David Stonner, head of congressional affairs for the organization, the NSF’s budget for fiscal year 2006 is $5.563 billion.

“On December 19, 2002, the president signed into law a bill placing the National Science Foundation on a path that would see its budget doubled every five years. Remaining on that path, this year’s budget would have been $8 billion,” Stonner said.

“Researchers would love to see a doubling of that budget. Practically speaking, though, where is that money going to materialize from?” he continued. “This is certainly not a comment on Ms. Pelosi. The bill was passed by a Republican Senate and signed by a Republican president, I think, with very good intentions.”

This element of the Democratic agenda also calls for the creation of regional centers of excellence for basic research. These centers are meant to attract the “best minds and top researchers” to develop technological innovations and new industries, as well as modernize existing federal and academic research centers.

The plan also calls for a globally competitive research and development tax credit to be modernized and permanently extended.

“These [dual] investments will allow us to pursue the long-term, trailblazing research that gives rise to new advances, spawns new industries, and creates good jobs,” Pelosi said.

Broadband access for all Americans

Joining many educators around the nation, Pelosi said the Democratic agenda for innovation calls for the implementation of a national broadband policy that “doubles federal funding to promote broadband for all Americans, especially in rural and underserved communities.”

“Our agenda guarantees that every American will have affordable access to broadband within five years,” Pelosi said. “Universal broadband will propel advanced internet applications, such as distance learning, health [information technology], video on demand, and voice over [internet protocol].”

Kelley said the plan calls for revising the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to better facilitate broadband availability, providing a “stable regulatory framework” to attract investment by existing providers and new entrants. The agenda also would ask Congress to enact a broadband tax credit for telecommunications companies that deploy broadband technologies in rural and underserved parts of America, “to make certain that every region of the country benefits from federal innovation investments.”

“There are things that have led to a level of uncertainty in terms of development, and if we can clear that up, that will make [our course] much clearer,” Kelley said.

Energy independence

Pelosi said the fourth part of the agenda would recognize that only “innovation and technology can lead America to energy independence.”

“We should be spending America’s energy dollars in the Midwest, not the Middle East,” she said.

Under the agenda, the federal government would support programs to reduce the use of petroleum-based fuels substantially by rapidly expanding production and distribution of synthetic and bio-based fuels, such as ethanol derived from inedible plant fiber sources. The government also would deploy new engine technologies for fuel-flexible, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and biodiesel vehicles.

“To accelerate this work,” Pelosi said, “we propose a new initiative within the Department of Energy … that develops high-risk, high-reward, revolutionary energy technologies.” These technologies could include those emerging from biotechnology, nanotechnology, solar energy, and fuel-cell research.

“Our goal is energy independence, and we intend to achieve it within 10 years,” Pelosi said.

Encouraging innovation

The final element of the agenda involves the creation of a competitive small-business environment for innovation.

“The evolution of an idea to a small business, and then ultimately to an entrepreneurial success, has been the spark for the technological revolution in our country and will be the key to continued job growth in the future,” Pelosi said.

To support small businesses, she said, her party’s plan calls for the provision of universal, affordable access to health insurance, small-business financial support and technical assistance, and reduced regulation.

“Essential to our pre-eminence is the protection of intellectual property,” she added. “Our agenda commits to protecting the intellectual property of American innovators worldwide.”

Pelosi tried to intercept criticisms that the Democratic agenda was too expensive to be realistic.

“We cannot afford not to make [these investments],” she said. “These are critical priorities to our nation. We intend to submit them to the rigors of pay-as-you-go budgeting, so they will not add to the deficit, but instead will grow our economy.”

Reaction to the plan

House Republicans, led by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, issued a brief response to the Democratic agenda. The statement read, in part, “House Democrats have consistently supported an agenda of higher taxation, litigation, and regulation, while Republicans have been fighting for a high-tech agenda that expands innovation.”

As of press time, Hastert’s office had not returned telephone calls requesting a further response.

Industry and academic leaders largely praised the proposals.

John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems Inc., wrote that the agenda focuses on the right issues for building on the nation’s competitiveness.

“This agenda thoughtfully addresses how government can best play a role in improving our economic competitiveness by focusing on innovation,” Chambers wrote.

Jack Krumholtz, managing director for federal government affairs at Microsoft Corp., wrote that the plan to promote investment in education, research and development, and innovation “marks a positive step forward in the struggle to maintain our nation’s competitive edge in the global marketplace.”

“The Innovation Agenda would, if enacted, help ensure that our nation’s education system produces a new generation of innovators and achievers who are equipped with the tools needed today and in the future,” Krumholtz said. “At Microsoft, we are committed to changing the world through innovative technology and, in order to fulfill that commitment, we need a pool of well-educated, skilled workers.”

Belle Wei, dean of the college of engineering at San Jose State University in California’s Silicon Valley, said advances in technology have always been central to American economic growth.

“Now more than ever, no political agenda would be complete without acknowledging the importance of innovation to our global competitiveness. I am grateful to our political leaders for raising our collective awareness of the importance of innovation,” Wei wrote.

Pelosi spokesman Kelley acknowledged that an estimated dollar amount for the plan had yet to be determined. He said determining these figures is best left to experts in business, technology, and academia.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that these are goals that we’ve identified with help from the experts, industry leaders, CEOs, and academics, people who know this inside and out on a number of different levels,” Kelley said. “The agenda has not been included in a bill–in fact, there will probably be multiple bills–but this agenda will begin the process.”

Links:

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
http://www.house.gov/pelosi

U.S. House of Representatives
http://www.house.gov

National Science Foundation
http://www.nsf.gov

Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
http://www.house.gov/Hastert

Cisco Systems Inc.
http://www.cisco.com

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

San Jose State University
http://www.sjsu.edu