How the Government Refocused
on Innovation and Competitiveness
by Debra Schiff
Innovation and competitiveness aren't just empty buzzwords
in Washington these days — they've garnered very real support from Congress and the White House,
and have inspired a number of promising legislative initiatives. If Congress
can capitalize on building momentum behind these efforts, new
legislation designed to help the United States maintain its
technological leadership edge could be sent
to the President during this session of Congress.
In the Senate, a sweeping package called
America's Competitive Edge Act (PACE), and the
National Innovation Act await action. And in the House,
Democrats have unveiled their innovation agenda, with House
Republicans expected to unveil their own shortly. In his State
of the Union Address on 31 January, President Bush outlined his
American Competitiveness Initiative, designed to spur U.S.
innovation and better equip the nation to compete in the global
marketplace. With such broad support, it seems likely that some
measure of legislation related to innovation and competitiveness
will survive the legislative process. But, in a time of
partisan wrangling over issues like Iraq, port deals and wiretaps,
how did such a
unifying issue come to the fore?
The Reports that Galvanized the Innovation
Two key reports laid the groundwork for the proposed
legislation and the president's initiative. In Part I of this
two-part series, we will examine Innovate America, a
report that emerged from the Council on Competitiveness,
a Washington think tank dedicated to keeping national
competitiveness issues on the front burner. (IEEE-USA is one of the
Council's 25 national affiliates.)
Part II will look at the National Academies' report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. When
presented to Congress, these two documents heightened lawmakers'
awareness that America is increasingly falling behind on moving
ahead. And that the reports the country's top
minds in business and education authored these reports didn't hurt.
Because the various measures and initiatives focus on improving America's competitiveness and
innovativeness via math and science education, as well as investments
in research and development, IEEE-USA is paying close attention to the
legislative activities around them and corresponding with key
decision-makers to urge them to take advantage of the favorable
climate to pass legislation sooner, rather than later. Russ Lefevre, IEEE-USA's vice
president for Technology Policy, has been visiting lawmakers to
let them know the key points IEEE-USA's members wish to see in the
Continuing-education tax breaks
A permanent, doubled research and development tax credit
A doubled R&D budget for the National Science
An increased R&D budget for the department of
All the education improvements recommended in
both Innovate America and Rising Above the Gathering
"IEEE-USA thinks the continuing education credit is
very important. When the half-life of an engineer is five years,
it's quite clear that the days when an engineer could spend his or
her career shepherding a specific computer program are long gone.
You must be able to move from one discipline to another discipline,
and you must be able to do it quickly," says Lefevre.
The movement to raise awareness about America's need
to keep innovating to hold onto its competitive edge is not
new. Back in the mid-1990s, The Council on Competitiveness coined
the phrase "innovation ecosystem" as a way to communicate the
network of connections that link together all the people and
organizations that produce innovations, from scientists and
engineers to entrepreneurs and corporate managers and even federal,
state and local policy-makers. Deborah Wince-Smith, president
of The Council on Competitiveness, said: "We call it an ecosystem because
all of the players are interdependent and each has a unique role to
play in the innovation process."
"Because of its strength and diversity, America's
innovation ecosystem continues to lead the world. We are better than
anyone else at translating new ideas into marketable products and
services. But the competition is increasing, and we will need to
work even harder to maintain our historic advantage," she cautioned.
Wince-Smith said the innovation manifesto, Innovate
America, was born out of a need to better understand the nature of
innovation's evolution. "What really galvanized the launch was that
not only are global forces accelerating in terms of the
competition and the emergence of high-skilled, low-cost innovators, but
also that the process of
innovation itself has begun to radically change," she said.
The think tank knew that it needed to understand how
innovation has changed and where it is going as a dynamic system for
wealth and value creation. In turn, such understanding would lead to a systemic
agenda of what the nation needs to do, "not just what the government
needs to do, but what the private sector, academia, and the public-at-large need to do to make our country continue to be a place that
attracts high-value investment, and where high-value economic
activity is performed," Wince-Smith commented.
After a year of research and an interim report that
turned more than a few heads, the Council released Innovate
America in December 2004. Senators John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Joe
Lieberman (D-Conn.) introduced the National Innovation Act in
December 2005, which takes the the report's recommendations and
turns them into legislation. "The Ensign and Lieberman bill has as
much of Innovate America in it as it could," said IEEE-USA's
Lefevre. More than 25 senators
from both parties have signed on to it so far, including Senators
Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)
and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who crafted the PACE
The national innovation agenda (see Figure 1), as
set forth in the
report, is divided into three primary categories:
Figure 1 - National Innovation
(Click to enlarge)
Looking ahead, Wince-Smith believes that the United
States is on the cusp of a manufacturing revolution. "The concept
that manufacturing is dirty, dumb, dangerous and disappearing is
really not correct. We need to accelerate the talent, workforce,
innovation and employment systems that migrate our economy and
industry into the 21st century manufacturing environment — where
design, use of high-performance computing, and the logistic supply
chain are brought together for new value creation," she says.
Wince-Smith also sees the energy challenges of
sustainability, the need to have a balanced portfolio, and reducing
foreign dependency as high priorities. "We know companies are making
location decisions based on the cost and reliability of energy.
There's a real tipping point on energy. That relates to
manufacturing too, with the cost of the reliance on petroleum.
Energy challenges and manufacturing opportunities are all
converging, so it's a real exciting time."
Check back for Part II of this series, on the National Academies report
the Gathering Storm, in next month's issue of IEEE-USA Today's Engineer Online.
For more information on the competitiveness issue,
visit IEEE-USA's resource page at:
Debra Schiff is a freelance writer
who has written for EE Times, IEEE Spectrum and
be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.