Bill Gates speaks out on U.S. competitiveness

Fred White, ThomasNet

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates recently testified before the Senate Health, Energy, Labor and Pensions Committee to spur science education and research. On the discussion of competitiveness in the 21st century, he recognized that “many of the most important advances in computing, healthcare, telecommunications, manufacturing and many other fields” have originated in the U.S. However, his pride is mixed with deep anxiety.

Here are some of his comments:

"When I reflect on the state of American competitiveness, my feeling of pride is mixed with deep anxiety. Too often, it seems we're content to live off the investments previous generations made, and that we are failing to live up to our obligation to make the investments needed to make sure the U.S. remains competitive in the future.

We know we must change course, but we have yet to take the necessary action. In my view, our economic future is in peril unless we take three important steps:

• First, we must equip America's students and workers with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today's knowledge economy.

• Second, we need to reform our immigration policies for high-skilled workers so that we can be sure our workforce includes the world's most talented people.

• And third, we need to provide a foundation for future innovation by investing in new ideas and providing a framework for capturing their value.

First, and foremost, the U.S. cannot maintain its economic leadership unless our workforce consists of people who have the knowledge and skills needed to drive innovation. The problem starts in our schools, with a great failure taking place in our high schools. Consider the following facts:

The U.S. has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the industrialized world. Three out of 10 ninth-graders do not graduate on time. Nearly half of all African-American and Hispanic ninth-graders do not graduate within four years. Of those who do graduate and continue on to college, nearly half have to take remedial courses on material they should have learned in high school.

Unless we transform the American high school, we'll limit the economic opportunities for millions of Americans. As a nation, we should start with the goal of every child in the United States graduating from high school.

To achieve this goal, we need to adopt more rigorous standards and set clear expectations. We must collect data that will enable students, parents and teachers to improve performance.

And if we are going to demand more from our students, we'll need to expect more from teachers. In return, we must provide teachers the support they need, and we must be willing to reward those who excel.

A specific area where we are failing is in math and science education. In my written testimony, I detail concerns about the alarming trends in elementary and secondary schools. We cannot sustain an economy based on innovation unless we have citizens well educated in math, science and engineering.

Our goal should be to double the number of science, technology and mathematics graduates in the United States by 2015. This will require both funding and innovative ideas. We must renew and reinvigorate math and science curricula with engaging, relevant content. For high schools, we should aim to recruit 10,000 new teachers and strengthen the skills of existing teachers. To expand enrollment in post-secondary math and science programs, each year we should provide 25,000 new undergraduate scholarships and 5,000 new graduate fellowships.

America 's young people must come to see science and math degrees as key to opportunity. If we fail at this, we won't be able to compete in the global economy.

Even as we need to improve our schools and universities, we cannot lose sight of the need to upgrade the skills of people already in our workforce.

Federal, state and local governments and industry need to work together to prepare all of our workers for the jobs required in the knowledge economy.

While private sector research and development is important, federal research funding is vital. Unfortunately, while other countries and regions, such as China and the European Union, are increasing their public investment in R&D, federal research spending in the United States is not keeping pace. To address this problem, I urge Congress to take action.

The Federal Government should increase funding for basic scientific research. Recent expansion of the research budgets at the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation is commendable, but more must be done. We should also increase funding for basic research by 10 percent annually for the next seven years.

Second, Congress should increase and make permanent private sector tax credits for R&D. The United States ranks 17th among OECD nations in the tax treatment of R&D. Without a renewed commitment to R&D tax credits, we may drive innovative companies to locate their R&D operations outside U.S. borders.

We must also reward innovators. This means ensuring that inventors can obtain intellectual property protection for their innovations and enforce those rights in the marketplace.

The challenges confronting America's competitiveness and technological leadership are among the greatest we have faced in our lifetime. I recognize that conquering these challenges will not be easy, but I firmly believe that if we succeed, our efforts will pay rich dividends for all Americans. We have had the amazing good fortune to live through a period of incredible innovation and prosperity. The question before us today is: 'Do we have the will to ensure that the generation that follows will also enjoy the benefits that come with economic leadership?'"

For more and in-context conversation, check out the Webcast.

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