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Alexander and Gordon keep pressure on Bush White House
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Rep. Bart Gordon

Article originally published in full May 13 on The VN Blog.

In ways both subtle and dramatic, Rep. Bart Gordon and Sen. Lamar Alexander are maintaining pressure to fund the nation's knowledge agenda: On Thursday [May 8], Alexander addressed scientists gathered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and called for a "new Manhattan Project" that would advance technologies to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil.

Then, [May 12] in Texarkana Gordon led his House Science Committee's field hearing at a K-12 school with a curriculum centered on science, technology, engineering and math.

On these and other occasions, both men have pressed for funding of America COMPETES, which President Bush pointedly criticized, even as he signed the bill into law, citing fears of pork-barrel spending embedded in it. (Alexander's comments in support of the legislation illuminated the process, a bit.)

Most funding for America COMPETES elements has never materialized, despite a broad alliance of stakeholders -- including Vanderbilt University -- who have pushed for full funding. Funding for America COMPETES may not improve until after the next Inauguration, according to comments made Thursday by an official of the American Association for Advancement of Science.

The Bush Administration's proposed $31 trillion budget for 2009 contains about $147 billion for federal R&D, but negligible spending for COMPETES.

Tennessee universities have done a good job of raising elites' awareness of declining funding for traditional mainstay research efforts, particularly those funded by the National Institutes of Health. However, the state's thought leaders are less aware that by now America COMPETES should have provided funding for college scholarships for future Tennessee math and science teachers; Summer Academies for hundreds from the ranks of current math-science teachers; support for creating at ORNL a residential high school for math-science students, as proposed by Gov. Phil Bredesen; high-tech internships for students at ORNL; additional funding for R&D on Tennessee campuses, which could led to commercialization and new jobs; and, among many other things, a new set of Professional Science Masters programs at Middle Tennessee State University.

MTSU's Dr. Michael Allen recently explained to me in an interview that while the university has been "gearing-up" for numerous intiatives related to math-science education, many initiatives are idling, pending COMPETES funding. This occurs at the same time that the Bredesen Administration and the Tennessee General Assembly are grappling with budget shortfalls and state layoffs that threaten funding for three new doctoral programs MTSU has proposed (computational sciences, molecular biosciences, and math-science education). MTSU is one of many Tennessee institutions striving to increase its research and tech transfer roles.

The broken COMPETES budget promises reach deep: For instance, the recently launched Mind2Marketplace initiative will have trouble getting traction if funding doesn't materialize. Another example: MTSU professor Bill Robertson (pictured with students above) has been working for years to break new ground in development of bio-sensors for use in life-sciences testing, drawing on a series of small grants. He told me in a recent interview that stalled funding means he now has equipment he's needed, but has no budget for hiring students to help with tests or to pay investigators salaries this summer.

He'll keep the program limping-along somehow in hope of funding materializing. At stake is not only basic knowledge, but also patentable ideas for commercialization and high-tech jobs. Such stories are being reported not only across Tennessee, but across the nation. Only the largest initiatives, such as energy and fusion research, or funding studies of chronic diseases like cancer get much attention.

Many stakeholders had held out hope that supplemental appropriations might yet restore some funding for STEM and related programs during FY2008, but a member of Gordon's staff told me yesterday, "...it is now less likely that additional funding will be added to the FY08 bill. Bart continues to advocate for increased funding for COMPETES in FY09." -- Story by Milt capps

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Tags: America COMPETES, Bart Gordon, Bill Robertson, economic development, innovation, Lamar Alexander, Michael Allen, Middle Tennessee State University, Mind2Marketplace, sponsored research, Vanderbilt University

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