As part of a Democratic strategy for the coming year, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is giving a speech today at the National Press Club laying out a strategy to retain America's competitiveness and leadership in the areas of science and technology. The strategy will call for energy independence within 10 years, nationwide broadband service, increased funding for science and engineering education and a greater federal coimmitment to funding basic research. Pelosi notes that other countries are following the American blueprint of leadership in science and technology. "As others have copied our blueprint we have departed from it." In a sharp break with the Republican Congress, Pelosi promises that if the Democrats take back Congress, the government will stop interfering with sound scientific judgments and will double many research programs. In particular, Pelosi highlights the need for a stepped-up program of "high-risk, high-reward, revolutionary energy technologies." Finally, in a call reminiscent of the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act, Pelosi calls for 100,000 new scientists, engineers and mathematicians over the next four years through increased spending for education, as well as scholarships and grants for students, to boost competitiveness.
Although a bit formulaic, this is both good politics and good policy.
As someone who was in the ninth grade when the Soviets launched the first-ever satellite, Sputnik, I well remember the huge push for improved science, math and engineering education that provoked. Of course, it led to educational fiascos like the "new math", but it did provide the basis for the space program and the computer revolution. Now, however, the Chinese graduate ten times the number of engineers as we do and cutting edge medical science is moving overseas, because of restrictions at home. The GOP plans to cut student loans in order to pay for extending tax cuts for the wealthy, Kansas restricts the teaching of evolution and government science is twisted to suit the needs of industry.
Increasing the support and rewards for science, mathematics and engineering study would seem to be a no-brainer. The goal of energy independence within 10 years (evoking President Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon in 10 years) is almost certainly unattainable, but without attempting the impossible, we will never find out what is possible.
Perhaps most importantly, Pelosi has put the Democrats squarely on the side of science and progress. The Republican War on Science is more than just the latest chapter in American anti-intellectualism, a rerun of George Wallace's indictment of "pointy headed intellectuals." Given problems such as global warming, avian flu, and energy depletion, it threatens our survival as a nation and as a species. In more immediate terms, a promise for more support for science may further peel off votes among professionals and entrepreneurial/libertarian types repelled by the GOP, bringing us one step closer to taking Congress.