Wuhan Covid CCP

America needs a laser-like focus on innovation, says Mark Warner, governor of Virginia

If you watch the news out of Washington or, for that matter, listen to the most passionate speeches in the chambers of many of America’s statehouses, you might think that the republic faces a series of crises about posting the Ten Commandments, or the right to bear arms, or any of a host of “hot button” social issues. You might think our prosperity as a people is guaranteed, that all of our people already have high-quality healthcare and that we have discovered magical new alternative fuels. Because otherwise these are the issues that our elected leaders would be addressing.

Today, many of America’s elected officials treat science, technology and innovation as second- or third-tier issues. This has to change – and change now. The US needs the same laser-like focus on science and technology that we marshalled in the wake of Sputnik, when Americans realized that another nation’s innovation had given it a crucial global advantage.

This change in thinking is critical for four reasons. First, scientific and technological innovations drive economic growth, the creation of high-wage jobs, productivity and higher standards of living. Technology is important not only for high-tech clusters in northern Virginia and Silicon Valley, but for all of the manufacturing and service companies that are using advanced technologies to compete and win in the global marketplace.

Second, America faces enormous challenges to its economic and technological leadership. The need for action is made even more compelling by the impact of increasingly-sophisticated Chinese and Indian workforces on the global economy.

America has fallen to sixth place in the world when ranked by research and development (R&D) as a proportion of national income. Amazingly, we rank 11th in the world in broadband deployment. Our 15-year-olds now rank 28th in the world in maths scores. Fewer than 15% of our high-school students take enough science and maths to qualify for any kind of engineering or advanced science in college. India produces four times more engineers each year than we do.

Third, science and technology can make significant contributions to every goal we face as a nation, such as reducing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, combating the next pandemic or slashing the administrative costs associated with our healthcare system.

Finally, we need to ensure that every region of America participates in the knowledge economy, especially those Americans in rural and small-town communities. A young person in a rural community hard-hit by job losses should not have to leave home to get a good job. Innovative uses of technology can bring hope and jobs back to these communities.

Fit to compete

The US still has exceptional assets to compete in the 21st century, knowledge-based economy. We have world-class research universities that are the envy of the world, flexible labour markets, angel and venture investors willing to bet on the “next big thing”, and an entrepreneurial culture that rewards risk aºnd tolerates failure. The National Institutes of Health funds roughly half of the world’s publicly-funded biomedical research – sparking life-saving breakthroughs and a thriving biotech industry. The information technology (IT) sector is recovering from the dotcom bubble, and innovative Web 2.0 companies are developing exciting new applications that harness the collective intelligence of millions of users. American scientists and engineers are establishing the foundations for nanotechnology, which could lead to advances in low-cost solar energy, smart anti-cancer therapeutics with dramatically-reduced side effects, and new chip technology that can store bits of information on individual molecules.

However, those who believe that technological leadership is America’s birthright are sadly mistaken. It isn’t. Our educational achievement gap with emerging nations is not enough. Federal investment in the physical sciences has declined steadily as a fraction of national income and, in recent years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has moved away from supporting long-term, high-risk research of the kind that led to the internet Vikings. Moreover, only 15% of the most sophisticated chip factories are located in the US. If sophisticated manufacturing continues to move offshore, it may not be possible to maintain America’s lead in semiconductor R&D and design.

The Virginian way

The US urgently needs a future-oriented agenda that will strengthen its scientific and technological leadership and create high-wage jobs. Let me share some ideas about what America’s response should be, as well as some specific actions we have taken in Virginia.

America should expand its investment in R&D, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering. Some of this increase should be targeted to a handful of “grand challenges” – such as the need to produce clean energy that reduces the emission of greenhouse gases and ends our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Federal agencies like DARPA also need to allocate more research dollars to high-risk, high-return research at our nation’s universities.

In Virginia, we have combined state and higher-education resources in a half-billion dollar investment in next-generation technologies. We placed emphasis on life sciences and computer modelling and simulation, areas that showed the most promise with the foundations already laid by our colleges and universities, military facilities and industry clusters.

America should strengthen incentives for private-sector investment, by making the on-again, off-again R&D tax credit permanent so that companies can count on it.

Virginia has developed the strongest venture-capital community in the south-eastern US, with an emphasis on IT and telecoms, and a new focus on biotech.

America must improve the quality of high school instruction in maths and science.

In my year as chairman of the National Governors Association, I worked with state governors across the nation to develop a comprehensive action plan to improve America’s high schools. In Virginia, we focused on the senior year of high school, enabling every student to earn up to a full semester of college credit while still in high school, and we put those students not bound for college on the path to an industry certification. This past year, Virginia students had the largest increase in maths scores on their college entrance exams of students in any state in the nation, and we saw dramatic double-digit increases in the number of students taking university-level courses and tests while still in high school.

America should expand its technical workforce by providing scholarships to students who pursue undergraduate and graduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We should also make it easier for foreign students to study at American universities and to stay here once they complete their education.

Virginia recently increased support for graduate financial aid, which is key to attracting the best talent from around the world.

America needs to accelerate the deployment of advanced broadband services by making more spectrum available for wireless services and by promoting applications (e-learning, e-health, telecommuting) that will stimulate the demand for broadband.

In Virginia, we have prioritized settlement money from our tobacco companies to fund the largest rural broadband deployment in America. With the Regional Backbone Initiative, we are creating a network that will connect five cities, 20 counties and more than 50 industrial parks across Southside Virginia, and offer broadband services to an estimated 700,000 residents and 19,000 businesses.

The issues that the US – or for that matter, the world – faces in 2006 are no longer left versus right or liberal versus conservative. They are about the future versus the past. With sensible solutions and American innovation, I believe that the US can again look forward to rising standards of living and to a bright future.

CV Mark Warner

Mark Warner is the governor of Virginia, US. Prior to this he was a venture capitalist.