The nation that gave the world the Internet and the microchip, the lithium-ion battery and the laser, is at risk of falling behind in scientific achievements.
That's the warning from University of Maryland officials and a high-tech industry task force with a goal at once modest and audacious: to hold federal leaders to a promise they made to increase funding for basic scientific research.
In 2007, Congress passed and President Bush signed the America Competes Act, with the goal of doubling funding for physical science, math and engineering research over 10 years. But the money pledged hasn't been delivered in the past two budgets.
Let's hope the third time is the charm. The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation is demanding that Congress honor already-approved increases for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. The additional funding would bring the combined budgets for the three agencies to about $12.3 billion.
Why should Marylanders care about adequate funding for the National Science Foundation? Because that money fuels research at institutions such as the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University that are engines of our state's high-tech economy. Few states rely on scientific research and technology as much as Maryland, which ranks second in the Milken Institute's 2008 State Technology and Science Index.
The private sector won't do the heavy lifting here. Corporations focus on product development, not the nuts-and-bolts lab work that produces scientific discoveries, sometimes after years of painstaking effort. Those innovations, spawned in university labs and government offices, will give rise to tomorrow's jobs and consumer goods.
But government funding for basic research has been stagnant for decades, the innovation task force has found - despite the fact that about half the nation's gains in gross domestic product since World War II can be traced to such work. In fact, federal investment in physical sciences and engineering as a share of gross domestic product fell by half between 1970 and 2005. Meanwhile, nations around the world, and particularly in Asia, are vastly increasing their support for research.
That's why the first challenge, says C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland, College Park, is getting people to realize that "we have a problem that needs to be fixed." America simply cannot rest on its past greatness as a scientific powerhouse.
Mr. Mote cites the problems of climate change and the need for new sources of energy in a world that is running out of oil. If we want scientists in Maryland and across America to be the ones harnessing new technologies to solve these vexing problems - rather than outsourcing the work to Japan, China, Ireland and Israel - then honoring the commitment of the America Competes Act should be a first, not a last, step.