A Weekly Advocacy Message from Mary Woolley: A 21st Century Sputnik Wake up Call

Dear Research Advocate:

The end of the year is a good time to think ahead and consider our nation at the end of the decade; how will we fare in the world order? My letter this week to the editor of the New York Times highlights poll data indicating that Americans don’t believe the U.S. will be the world leader in science and technology by 2020. This data reflects opinions grounded in numerous media reports on China’s accomplishments and determination to lead the world in science. Chinese accomplishments in space of late and their plans for a space station in 2020 ought to be a 21st century “Sputnik moment” for the U.S. It should be a wake-up call to policy makers: get serious about fueling our nation’s underpowered research and education infrastructure if we expect to compete globally in the years ahead. As NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins noted in his Washington Post op-ed this week, we’re at a “critical juncture” in biomedical research. Do we pursue opportunities derived from recent medical breakthroughs or squander them with insufficient funding for research? 

A host of businesses and the employees who fuel their progress are reliant on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education — I don’t mean just the behemoth global enterprises that are already tapping the power of other nations’ commitment to STEM. We know from polling this year that nine out of ten small business owners in America say that a robust national commitment to R&D is important to their business success, as well as to U.S. global competitiveness. That recognition does not seem to have influenced policy makers who appear to be ignoring the obvious fact that R&D is a conduit to success in virtually every sector of our economy. Other countries understand the critical nature of both a robust national R&D enterprise and a workforce powered by first-rate STEM education. (If you have any doubt that our nation is falling further behind in STEM, check out the recent interactive OECD comparison tool.)

By investing in STEM and federal support for basic research, and enacting policies that enable private sector innovation to thrive, we will be able to once again power-up our economy and — if we act in time — maintain our now quite tenuous global leadership. For advocates of R&D, be it medical or any of the many STEM disciplines, there are two gifts we can give our nation in 2014. We can fight for a top notch education system that enables many more children to equip themselves for a career in a STEM field, and we can fight for the resources and policies needed to “round the circle,” ensuring a robust supply of STEM jobs and an environment in which innovation flourishes. We have a new budget that lays the seeds for policy making grounded in serving the public’s interest rather than partisan politics. Let’s all help make sure the new budget is a new start, not a blip on the screen; and ensure research and innovation, and STEM education, remain a top American priority for generations to come.

Happy new year!


Mary Woolley

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