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U.S. risks its standard of living without boost to research, House science chairman says

The science and tech committee hopes to see turnaround in research spending under Obama

December 18, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the U.S. House committee overseeing federal technology research investments, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who last year warned that "the best jobs may soon be found overseas," said he expects a boost in science funding from the new administration. The funding will help in the development of such areas as nanotechnology, better batteries, waste recycling and health care, he said.

But Gordon, who heads the House Committee on Science and Technology, warned that unless the U.S. invests more to improve innovation and to increase its competitiveness against nations that pay lower wages, it will face a declining standard of living.

Gordon, at a briefing today on the committee's science priorities for next year, has been pressing for improvements in basic research and development funding. Other nations are also boosting their R&D spending at the same time that research in the U.S. "is flat or going down," he said.

Federal funding for basic research, now at $30.4 billion to colleges and universities, has not kept up with inflation over the past two years, according to a recent National Science Foundation study.

The government is "going to have to take on a larger role in terms of basic research for the long-term good, otherwise we are going to eat our seed corn," Gordon said.

Clearly, Gordon expects increased attention to science under President-elect Barack Obama and pointed to some of his Cabinet appointments, such as his selection of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu to head to the Department of Energy, as a sign that the new administration is focused on science research.

The Obama administration is expected to back an economic stimulus package of $600 billion to $800 billion next year, and Gordon said it will be important to have in it what he called "twofers," investments that can deliver quick gains and boost employment while also leading to major technology changes later on.

One technology that may qualify as a "twofer," offering help to the U.S. auto industry both in the short and the long term, is development of lighter and longer lasting batteries, Gordon said.

The committee has set itself a big agenda on a wide range of projects, including fostering interoperability standards that will lead to improved health care IT systems, as well as improving science, math and technology education, and increased funding for research and development programs to handle electronic waste.

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