Tapping America's Potential

By: Printed With Permissions From The Business Roundtable Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Jewel Of Collaboration

The Education for Innovation Initiative

Operation GOAL:


The Business Community Takes a Stand

In July 2005, 15 of America’s most prominent business organizations 1

joined together to express their deep concern about the ability of the United States to sustain its scientific and technological leadership in a world where newly energized foreign competitors are investing in the capacity for innovation — the key driver of productivity and economic growth in advanced economies.

The business organizations formed the Tapping America’s Potential (TAP) coalition to advocate for renewed attention to U.S. competitiveness and America’s capacity to innovate.

TAP established a goal to double the number of U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates with bachelor’s degrees by 2015.

TAP and other business, scientific and education coalitions helped to galvanize broad bipartisan agreement among federal policymakers on the need for action on U.S. competitiveness. Despite this consensus, and the enactment of landmark authorizing legislation, Congress and the administration have thus far failed to adequately fund the innovation policy agenda advocated by TAP.

America’s business leaders are frustrated that while governments around the world are building their national innovation capacity through investments in research and STEM education, the United States is standing still. Failure to change the status quo places America’s future economic and technological leadership at risk.

Update on TAP Goal

The business organizations that came together in 2005 to found TAP established a bold 10-year goal: “Double the number of U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates with bachelor’s degrees by 2015.”

America’s business leaders recognize that highly educated technical professionals constitute the key differentiator in global economic competition. They are the world’s innovators, and their presence attracts capital and infrastructure investments, feeding a virtuous cycle of investment and capacity building that drives more rapid innovation, accelerated productivity growth, and higher levels of sustained economic growth and high-wage employment.

At the time the goal was established, 2001 was the most recent year for which data were available on U.S. bachelor’s degrees. In that year, slightly more than 200,000 STEM bachelor’s degrees were awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. In the prior decade, the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded annually was relatively stable and hovered slightly below 200,000. Over the same period, projected demand for STEM graduates in the U.S. workforce grew markedly, and economic competitors, such as China and India, greatly increased their output of STEM graduates. The TAP goal of 400,000 U.S. STEM graduates with bachelor’s degrees by 2015, while ambitious, is necessary to meet future workforce demands and the global competitiveness challenge.

Since the TAP report was issued three years ago, 2002–2006 data have become available that show U.S. STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded in that period fall short of what will be required to reach 400,000 by 2015. While the number of STEM degrees awarded has remained relatively flat for three years, the policy changes the business community has called for to attract and retain more undergraduate STEM majors have not been enacted. Congress has authorized, but not yet funded, the expansion of science and engineering research and STEM education programs that will make STEM majors more attractive to undergraduates.

Private-sector demand for STEM graduates has increased and may help pull more students into these majors. The latest STEM workforce data show that, in 2006, the already low unemployment rate for STEM graduates dropped to 2.5 percent, and starting salaries were higher for students graduating with STEM degrees, particularly those with engineering degrees, than for most other majors.

In addition, there is a desperate need for STEM majors to teach math and science in U.S. schools. Research indicates that a highly qualified teacher is one of the most important factors in raising student achievement, yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, school districts across the country have difficulty hiring qualified math and science teachers.

Building a Consensus for Investments in U.S. Innovation

Since the TAP recommendations were issued three years ago, the policy landscape has changed in a positive direction, but progress toward implementation has been frustratingly halting and slow.

The policies TAP advocates are not new. For more than 10 years, economists and policy experts have pointed out that America’s failure to invest adequately in its innovation capacity will have negative long-term consequences for U.S. economic competitiveness. Those voices have only grown louder as global economic competition has grown more intense and America’s competitors have increased their investments in math and science education and in science and engineering research.

What is new, however, is the deep commitment of America’s business leaders to change the dynamic and reorient national policy toward greater investment in U.S. innovation leadership. The July 2005 TAP report was but one expression of this new commitment.

From Rhetoric to Legislation

In November 2005, then-Minority Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi unveiled the House Democrats’ Innovation Agenda calling for increased federal investments in science, research, and math and science education, as well as incentives for small business to increase its innovation capacity.

President Bush, responding to the concerns of America’s business leaders, announced the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) in his February 2006 State of the Union address to Congress, which proposed to double federal support for basic physical sciences and engineering research over 10 years at three key civilian science agencies, to renew the federal commitment to improving U.S. student achievement in math and science, and to implement high-skilled immigration reform and a permanent R&D tax credit.

For the first time, an American president and congressional leaders articulated an explicit link between physical sciences and engineering research and student achievement in math and science and future U.S. economic competitiveness. The ACI and the House Democrats’ Innovation Agenda were more than just budget proposals — they were a new rationale for public investments in America’s science and technology enterprise.

As a result of these and related legislative efforts, on August 9, 2007, the America COMPETES Act was signed into law. The legislation authorizes an increased federal investment in STEM education and science and engineering research. The America COMPETES Act is designed to:

Strengthen K–12 math and science education by improving teacher training in math and science; increasing support for the Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships for STEM undergraduate majors who agree to become K–12 math and science teachers; increasing the number of teachers prepared to teach Advanced Placement and pre-International Baccalaureate college preparatory courses; and providing Math Now grants to improve elementary and secondary math instruction. Expand undergraduate and graduate science and engineering programs through increased support for the National Science Foundation (NSF) STEM Talent Expansion Program, which provides grants to universities to devise creative programs to recruit and graduate more undergraduate STEM majors. Increase funding for basic research in the physical sciences by authorizing substantial new investments in basic research at NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science — providing a blueprint for future appropriations to double research at these key agencies in seven to 10 years.

The America COMPETES Act is a significant policy advance for U.S. innovation and competitiveness. However, unless sufficient appropriations follow over the next several years, the TAP agenda with regard to STEM education and science and engineering research will not be realized.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

In a disheartening repeat of previous years, deep consensus and nearly unique bipartisan agreement on the need to make innovation a priority did not, in the end, result in significant increased funding for basic research in the physical sciences or STEM education. Instead, appropriations provided either flat funding or real declines in fiscal year (FY) 2008, in constant dollar terms, for research and education programs.

There is an urgent need, however, to forge ahead to meet the TAP goal. Recent data illustrate why business leaders and policymakers must continue working together on STEM education priorities if the United States is to remain the world’s innovation leader.

Investments in Basic Research Drive Innovation

Investments in basic research, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, have led to a wide range of transformative innovations that have spawned new industries, created new high-wage jobs and positively impacted our daily lives. From medical imaging and laser-based medical therapies to global positioning systems (GPS) and MP3 players, federally funded research has been the foundation of many groundbreaking scientific discoveries, including the following:

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI technologies save lives every day by providing detailed images that help physicians detect critical illnesses, often during the early stages of development. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the National Institutes of Health, NSF and DOE funded research that led to the development of MRI.


GPS provides travelers with in-vehicle navigation, enables emergency and rescue workers to locate people in distress, and allows researchers to track and monitor natural disasters. The Department of Defense (DoD), DOE, the Air Force and Office of Naval Research funded research leading to the development of GPS.


Personal computers, cellular phones, MP3 players, cameras, video recorders, medical equipment and other devices all rely on semiconductors to function. NSF, DOE, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Office of Naval Research and the Air Force funded research to develop and enhance semiconductors.

These and many other innovations arising from federal research investments also have spurred new industries, reinvigorating the nation’s manufacturing and creating high-wage jobs — a model that can serve the United States into the future with an increase in government resources targeted to basic research.

Can We Get There from Here?

Given the limited progress to date on raising U.S. undergraduate STEM major graduation rates, is TAP’s goal of producing 400,000 U.S. graduates annually with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields achievable? The answer is yes, but only if policies are in place to create the right incentives.

The America COMPETES Act, if funded in spending bills yet to be enacted, will help to increase demand for STEM graduates by doubling federal support for basic research in math, engineering and physical sciences; increase the supply of incoming freshmen with the requisite skills to pursue STEM majors by improving K–12 STEM education; and increase recruitment of new STEM majors by highlighting the value of STEM careers and their importance to individual and national economic success.

In the appendix, we present examples of progress made toward each of the specific recommendations offered in the 2005 TAP report. The story is one of a glass half full. The business community has helped change the political and policy landscape; and nearly all of TAP’s recommendations are included in pending legislation, recently enacted legislation or in the president’s budget request. To date, however, very few have been implemented. The number of undergraduate STEM degrees won’t begin to grow at the requisite rate until more resources start flowing into university research programs, new — and newly energized — math and science teachers start flowing into K–12 schools, and STEM teaching and student performance improves — at all levels.


Since the TAP report was issued three years ago, Congress and the administration appeared to get serious about addressing America’s competitiveness challenge but have failed to provide matching federal money for STEM education and science and engineering research.

The America COMPETES Act, signed into law last year, represents a substantial step forward toward the realization of the TAP innovation agenda. Follow-through by Congress and the administration on spending bills over the next several years will be necessary, however, before the vision of significantly enhanced U.S. innovation capacity embodied in the Act becomes reality.

The collapse of comprehensive immigration reform in 2007 has stymied much-needed reform of the employment-based green card and H-1B visa systems. Highly educated foreign-born professionals, particularly those educated at U.S. universities, are one of America’s greatest competitive advantages. The United States should embrace these innovators rather than sending them home to compete against U.S. businesses.

It is incumbent upon the business community to maintain the pressure on policymakers to see that the TAP agenda is fully enacted and implemented. In particular, TAP’s priorities include:

Funding basic science and engineering research at U.S. universities at the levels authorized in the America COMPETES Act;

Funding STEM education programs at the levels authorized in the America COMPETES Act, including funds for expanding the Robert Noyce Scholarship Program at NSF, Math and Science Partnerships (MSP) programs at both NSF and the Department of Education, Math Now, Adjunct Teacher Corps, and programs to develop and expand Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs;

Enacting targeted reforms to welcome more highly educated foreign-born professionals into the United States; and

Complementing federal action with state, local and private-sector initiatives.

The business community continues to feel a sense of urgency about the future competitive position of the United States. If anything, the stakes are higher today than when the TAP report was released three years ago. While federal innovation investments have stalled in the United States, foreign competitors are continuing to build their own capacity to innovate by investing in research and education, opening their doors to talent from around the world, and creating a favorable climate — through tax credits and other incentives — to attract private-sector research investments.

If policymakers continue to take U.S. economic and technological leadership for granted, they will leave us with an America that is potentially weaker and less able to compete in the global economy. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we cannot afford to let that happen.

Appendix: Examples of Progress on Specific TAP Recommendations

1. AeA, Business-Higher Education Forum, Business Roundtable, Council on Competitiveness, Information Technology Association of America, Information Technology Industry Council, Minority Business RoundTable, National Association of Manufacturers, National Defense Industrial Association, Semiconductor Industry Association, Software & Information Industry Association, TechNet, Technology CEO Council, Telecommunications Industry Association, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce are the original 15 organizations that released the report in July 2005. National Venture Capital Association joined later that year.

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