Sounding a warning call to those who oversee the nation's science and technology agenda, President Charles M. Vest said Tuesday that federal spending on research and development is proportionately lower than it was 15 years ago and significantly fewer engineers are graduating from American universities.
Dr. Vest was speaking to an audience of more than 200 that included eight former science advisors to presidents from Truman to Clinton. The group was at MIT to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and to discuss future issues for science.
The day-long conference on science and technology policy in Wong Auditorium was sponsored by MIT's Technology and Policy Program (TPP) and cosponsored by the Sloan Foundation, the President's Office, the Engineering Systems Division and the TPP.
Former presidential science advisers spoke about the issues they faced while in office. Other distinguished speakers took a prospective look at science and technology policy issues.
The eight former presidential science advisors attending the conference and the presidents they served were William T. Golden (Truman), Donald Hornig (Johnson), Edward E. David Jr. (Nixon), H. Guyford Stever (Nixon and Ford), George A. Keyworth III (Reagan), D. Allan Bromley (G.H.W. Bush), John Gibbons (Clinton) and Neal Lane (Clinton).
Dr. Vest told conference participants that a passionate new commitment to science and technology funding is vital to jump start the sluggish economy and maintain the benefits of America's recent economic success.
PARTNERSHIP FOR SUCCESS
Dr. Vest has long been involved in promoting to Congress the value and potential of investing in science and technology. He says America's prosperity in the past 50 years is due to an "innovation system" that partners academia, industry and government.
In this system, universities create new generations of scientists and engineers who in turn generate new ideas; industry translates these ideas into products and services; and federal and state governments provide financial support and adopt policies that make the system work.
To keep the system going, Dr. Vest says the American K-12 education system must be improved; more Americans need to be lured to careers in science, mathematics and engineering; and young scientists and engineers need to be educated in the broader skills it takes to make things happen in the real world.
At MIT, this need is being addressed through the Technology and Policy Program, the largest program in the world in which engineering students receive an in-depth understanding of disciplines such as economics, law and politics.
NEW COMMITMENT NEEDED
Among the reasons Dr. Vest cited for the need for a renewed commitment to science and technology funding:
- Broad-based fundamental research is vital to national security.
- Science will help provide answers on how to alleviate suffering and create opportunities for people around the world.
- Science will help improve health and safety for US citizens, including the disadvantaged and physically challenged.
In the half-century since World War II, fully half of the growth of the US economy has been due to technological innovation, Dr. Vestsaid.
"As people with the expertise and experience to appreciate these problems in all their dimensions, it's our job to make the case in Washington for prompt and continuing action," he said. "We need to persuade federal leaders that broad-based, fundamental research is an investment, not a cost."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 2, 2001.