The August passage of the America Competes Act, particularly in a Congressional session that accomplished little else, makes a huge statement.
The wide-ranging bill authorizes $43.3 billion in funding for basic research and for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
It's designed to encourage research in what the White House describes as "promising and critical areas, such as nanotechnology, supercomputing and alternative energy sources."
The legislation requires the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study identifying risks that create barriers to innovation. It authorizes the National Institute of Standards and Technology to establish the Technology Innovation Program, which would direct money to universities and small and midsize businesses doing "high-risk, high-reward" research.
It also lays the groundwork for far-reaching educational programs that will help the U.S. remain competitive.
Its many STEM-related education provisions include authorization of scholarship funds for future K-12 math and science teachers.
Money is also earmarked for assisting states in improving math and science education, for summer programs for teachers, and for scholarships intended to recruit and train math and science teachers in high-need areas.
The bill authorizes funds to increase the number of teachers for Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate programs, and the number of students who study and become proficient in "critical" foreign languages.
The legislation also provides money for higher education: specifically, for academic institutions that are working in nuclear science.
The next step in the process is figuring out just how the money will be spent.
Although pleased with its bipartisan success, proponents of the multiyear legislation (who hail from industry, academia and the government) see challenges in implementation.
The Department of Commerce has taken the first step by establishing a Technology Council. The new entity takes the place of the department's previous Technology Administration, which was eliminated by the legislation.
It's all still in the early stages. The council's first meeting is expected to be held this month.
"What we're going to be doing is coordinating the technology policy of the department," said Joel Harris, director of the department's Office of Policy and Strategic Planning.
The council will consist of heads of Commerce Department agencies, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the International Trade Administration, the Bureau of Industry and Security, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Given the complexities of government bureaucracy, the broad representation on the council is a necessity.
"The real issue is that we've got the government set up in a way that is kind of like silos," Harris said. "It's compartmentalized. We want to make sure everybody's talking to each other."
Texas Instruments, along with other high-tech companies, worked on the legislation through the Semiconductor Industry Association. Paula Collins, TI vice president of government relations, is encouraged by the bill's passage.
"We're very supportive," Collins said. "We're very excited because it provides a visionary blueprint for what needs to [be done to] ensure the U.S. continues to be an innovation leader."
It's particularly good news for industry and the economy because it's bipartisan, she said.
"It was necessary to identify this as an imperative, that the American people and the U.S. government needed to focus on a road map to ensure that we're going to be competitive," Collins said.
The bill is good news for the future of electrical engineering in general, according to Russ Lefevre, IEEE-USA president-elect. "Even though our engineering members have a pretty low unemployment rate, globalization [moving jobs offshore] is a long-term concern," Lefevre said.
The inevitability of that leads Lefevre to only one conclusion. "We just have to use and maintain our edge in innovation and infrastructure, and generally our system for doing high-tech work," he said.
Several steps have to be taken before money arrives in the hands of the many stakeholders, making it difficult to say how funds will be spent. It's also hard to know what success for the bill's goals would look like.
When it comes to R&D, there's no way to accurately describe what success will look like, Lefevre said, recalling Yogi Berra's famous comment: "It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future."
But he came up with some possibilities. "If Toyota or GM or Ford starts turning out plug-in hybrid vehicles, or if we start seeing environmentally sound coal-fired power plants, then we know that the R&D provisions are starting to have an effect," Lefevre said.
Plenty of research is taking place in that area, and Lefevre expects the DOE to do more. He also expects the agency to dedicate more time and resources to other renewable energy sources, such as wind power.
Lefevre added that the bill's education provisions are just as significant as those that deal with research and development.
"IEEE-USA certainly views these education provisions as being extremely important to the technology health of the country," he said.
And success in the education sector might be easier to measure.
National standardized testing done in fourth and eighth grades is a quantitative way to see if the bill's education provisions work, Lefevre said.
Industry sees it differently
Many factors play a role in the complex picture of national competitiveness, and not everyone agrees which ones are the most important.
Although there's not much argument about the value of stepping up math and science education in the United States, particularly in the lower grades, the discussion can get heated when it comes to foreign workers and salaries. American-born engineers often focus on better salaries as a key element to attract a highly skilled homegrown workforce.
Green card and HI-B visa restrictions that keep companies from hiring and retaining foreign-born technology professionals play a role in America's status in high tech, Collins said; and a tax structure that doesn't encourage research and development is another part of the problem.
"The America Competes Act is just one piece of it," Collins said. "The whole ecosystem of innovation needs to work together."
And, while the discussion proceeds, Collins pointed out that the money isn't here yet.
"The authorization needs to be followed with the appropriations that support it, to ensure that this is going to be a meaningful exercise," Collins said.