U.S. industry and education leaders, including Intel chairman Craig Barrett, called on Congress to pass bills that would provide scholarships for math and science teachers and increase federal funding for research.
Barrett, testifying before the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee Tuesday, said the two bills would be a "good first start" toward improving the competitiveness of U.S. workers and industry.
Improved kindergarten-to-12th-grade education and increased funding for research were the top two priorities in a National Academies of Science report on U.S. competitiveness, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, released in late 2006.
Executives and educators sounding the alarm about U.S. competitiveness aren't saying the "sky is falling," he said. The rest of the world is "copying what we did well for the last several decades," he said. "Our challenge is to do what is necessary to be successful for the next several decades."
Congress has been slow to step up with policies that promote competitiveness, added Neal Lane, a physics professor at Rice University in Houston and former assistant to President Bill Clinton in the White House Office of Science and Technology.
"In recent years, the U.S. has been reluctant to make the kind of long-term investments necessary to secure a bright future for Americans," Lane said. "We seem to have other priorities. My grandchildren and their generation will inherit a different America, and they think perhaps a used-up or worn-out America."
Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat and chairman of the committee, promised to push competitiveness bills through Congress this session, even though similar bills stalled during the last session. "There is a bipartisan consensus that investing in education and research...is necessary," he said.
The first bill, the 10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds Science and Math Scholarship Act, sets a goal of training 10,000 new math and science teachers per year for U.S. schools. The bill would provide scholarships for college students who want to be math and science teachers, with $70 million going into the scholarship program in 2008, rising to $196 million in 2012.
The second bill, called the Sowing the Seeds Through Science and Engineering Research Act, would authorize a 10 percent funding increase in the research budgets at five U.S. government agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. Gordon introduced both bills in January.
In addition to the two bills, Barrett called for Congress to relax restrictions on the number of skilled foreign workers U.S. companies could hire per year. The current cap for the H-1B program is 65,000 workers per year, not counting an exemption for 20,000 workers per year who leave U.S. universities with graduate degrees.
Barrett called on Congress to not put any hiring limits on the number of foreign workers who graduate from U.S. colleges. Congress should "staple a green card [worker visa] to every foreign student graduating with a degree in science and engineering," he said.
Barrett's comments echoed comments from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates during testimony before a congressional committee last week.
But Rep. Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington state, questioned the need to expand the H-1B visa program without linking it to programs that require businesses to help train U.S. workers. "There are freeloaders," he said. "They pay [the H-1B fee], but if you ask them to do anything with the local school district to help out, they're AWOL."