The economic future of the United States rests with the vitality of its science and engineering enterprise, according to the director of the National Science Foundation.
To keep the country on the "cutting edge" in scientific endeavor will take more emphasis on training scientists and engineers and spending more money on research and development, said director Erich Bloch.In an effort to boost science and engineering in the U.S., Bloch suggested increased funding for basic academic research, and cooperation between universities, industry and government in research. He also said training and the quality of technical education at all levels must be improved.
His comments came during the 12th annual Utah Conference on Energy, Mining and New Technology Review of the 1990s at the University of Utah.
Bloch said the U.S. spends more money on research and development than Japan, Germany, France and England combined, but the margin of that lead has decreased in the past 20 years.
Noting that the majority of this country's civilian basic research is done at colleges and universities, Bloch said the federal research and development support for such institutions has been falling, even though the amount of research has increased since 1980.
In 1970, there were half as many scientists and engineers per 10,000 workers in Japan and Germany as in the U.S., but today the figures are roughly the same. "While several factors contribute to this problem, one undoubtedly is the decline in university basic research support," Bloch said.
A temporary slackening in support for research can have long-term effects on the nation's supply of scientists and engineers. "When the prospects for academic research support drop off, promising students are discouraged from continuing the lengthy, financially uncertain educational process required for research and university teaching classes," Bloch said.
Statistics show that college graduates have chosen not to pursue graduate degrees in science and engineering, especially the doctorate degree, Bloch said. The reason the number of doctorate degrees in science and engineering hasn't dropped off more is the influx of foreign students.
One reason few freshmen are interested in physical science and engineering studies may be the inadequacy of their pre-college preparation. "We cannot expect to train enough scientists and engineers if we do not adequately prepare our young people," he said.
Before students reach college, Bloch said, they must be encouraged to develop the basic math and science skills needed to pursue further studies. This is especially important because the number of 22-year-olds has been dropping steadily.
Another speaker was Sidney J. Green, president and chief executive officer of Terra Tek Inc., who said states have led the way in the commercialization of research and development for economic development, which is moving the research results into the marketplace.
He said universities are looking for someone to take the technology learned and put it on the market, but in some cases it may be five to 10 years before the results are known. Because of the time needed to determine the results, Green said it is essential to maintain the interest with legislators so they will continue providing money to various funding programs.
Although universities are under pressure to create jobs, Green hopes their main tasks of teaching and research will be retained.
Serving as chairman of the economic development portion of the conference was Lt. Gov. W. Val Oveson, who said technology in Utah has helped overcome the economic doldrums caused by the decline in the oil and gas industry and the closure of Kennecott Utah Copper and Geneva Steel.
Development of technology is the future of the country, Oveson said, and Utah's economy is directly related to how much commitment state officials are willing to make to ensure that research and development continue.