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Public Statements

Investing in R&D and STEM

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Ms. EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON of Texas. Today, I would like to emphasize the important role that Federal investments in research and development, or R&D; and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, education play in stimulating growth, creating new industries and jobs, and delivering long-term benefits to our citizens.

As a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and now as ranking member, I have had the privilege of hearing countless witnesses from industry, academia, and government over the past several years testify that investments in R&D are essential to keeping America competitive in a challenging international marketplace. In fact, according to a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, changes in technology are the only source of permanent increases in productivity.

If we are to reverse the trend of the last 20 years, where our country's technology edge in the world has diminished, we must make the investments necessary today. The statistics speak for themselves. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of our economic growth since World War II can be attributed to development and adoption of new technologies. The path is simple: research and education lead to innovation. Innovation leads to economic development and good-paying jobs and the revenue to pay for more research.

As private firms underinvest in research and development because the returns are too far off in the future, there is a clear and necessary role of government to help our Nation keep pace with the rest of the world.

More than 50 years ago, when DARPA was first created, no one had any idea that the research that they would fund would be responsible for the creation of the Internet or the proliferation of GPS technology, but it did. Those inventions started with Federal dollars, as did countless other game-changing technologies.

It is clear that Federal investments in R&D bring significant returns for decades to come. In 1987, MIT Professor Robert Solow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work proving that improved technology and improved education in the workforce was clearly and chiefly responsible for long-term growth, much more than increases in labor or capital. The current best estimate for the return on academic research alone is 28 percent. Federal efforts are underway now to more vigorously and rigorously quantify the return on Federal investments in R&D.

Today we find ourselves at a crossroads. The United States remains a leader in science, technology, and innovation but no longer the unchallenged leader. While our own world-class innovation infrastructure is under stress, our competitors in other countries, even as they institute austerity measures in other parts of their budgets, are seizing the opportunity to make strategic investments in long-term basic research and build and leverage public-private partnerships to support the shorter term R&D that will help create jobs now and long into the future.

As we struggle with our own deficits, we too can make the strategic choice to continue to invest in our future--both in our human capital and physical infrastructure--or we can make the strategic choice to permanently cede our leadership, to fail our current generation of young people and to put our economy in a state of stagnation for years to come.

STEM education is another critical component to the Nation's economic competitiveness. Yet according to the Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. currently ranks 17th in science and 25th in math out of 34 countries. Though our best STEM students have no trouble competing with their international peers, on average, our K-12 students continue to lag far behind their international peers in math and science aptitude. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2009 science assessment, 34 percent of the fourth-graders, 30 percent of the eighth-graders, and 21 percent of the 12th-graders performed at or above the proficient level in science. When eighth-graders were tested again in 2011, they achieved a modest 2-point gain in the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency.

When the results are broken down by demographic groups, we see a 6-7 point gender gap that begins somewhere between the 4th and 8th grade and persists through 12th grade. Even more troubling, there are huge and persistent gaps across racial/ethnic groups. Among African American students, in 2009 only 11 percent of fourth-graders, 8 percent of eighth-graders, and 4 percent of twelfth-graders performed at or above the proficient level in science. The number for Hispanic students--14, 12 and 8 percent, respectively--are only slightly better. The one small sign of improvement is a 4 point gain for Hispanic 8th graders from 2009 to 2011. But how as a nation and as parents and grandparents can we tolerate any of these numbers for any of our students?

We must also do better at the college level. Even among those minority students who have access to high-performing schools or who otherwise succeed against the odds and enter college intending to major in a STEM degree, fewer than 20 percent finish within five years, compared to a 33 percent 5-year completion rate for White students and 42 percent for Asian students.

We've been talking about "A Nation at Risk'' since the report by that name came out nearly 30 years ago, but in that time we've made little to no improvement. Some suggest we may even have gone backwards. As long as our nation overall was still number one, it was easier for our leaders to let year after year pass without taking the hard steps to take on an enormous set of challenges in a large and diverse country where, rightly so, education is controlled at the local level.

However, the world is changing, the demand for STEM skills is steadily increasing, and our nation's leadership is being challenged. At the same time, our demographics are shifting in profound ways, making the racial/ethnic gaps that much more consequential for our future. By the year 2050, minorities are predicted to represent 55 percent of the national college population.

I am heartened by many of the initiatives going on now at both the federal and state levels, including the Obama Administration's Race to the Top, Initiative and the state-drive common core standards in math and science. Nevertheless, we have a long way to go to ensure that the U.S. continues to produce the world's best scientists, mathematicians, and engineers and to make sure that every student is prepared for the highly technical, high-paying jobs of the future. According to 2008 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the professional information technology (IT) workforce was projected to add a little under a million new jobs between 2008 an 2018. This represents more than twice the rate of overall workforce growth over that same period. Many high-tech companies cite the availability of a skilled STEM workforce as the number one reason for determining where they locate their facilities. Producing students with the STEM skills needed to fill the jobs of the future is necessary to maintaining our nation's innovation capacity and creating new high-skill, high-paying jobs at home.

We need to take a step back and refrain from making short-sighted, ill-advised cuts to our R&D and education investments in pursuit of illusory budgetary benefits. While we debate turning the lights off on groundbreaking research projects, shuttering world-class research facilities, stopping emerging industries in their tracks, and losing many of our best and brightest scientists from the STEM pipeline for good, our competitors in China, India, and elsewhere are surging ahead in their investments in R&D, STEM education, and emerging industries.

I urge all of us, as we undertake our very difficult task of trying to set us on a more sustainable fiscal path, to do whatever it takes to prioritize steady growth of our investments in science, technology, and STEM education. It is when our economy is hurting the most that we should be redoubling our efforts to innovate our way into a brighter future of new jobs, new technologies, and untold societal benefits.

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