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Remarks to President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

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Friday, January 6, 2012

Commerce Secretary John Bryson
Remarks to President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

I want to talk briefly to you about the report Commerce released earlier this morning about the competitiveness and innovative capacity of the American economy.

More important, though, I want to hear from you about the next steps only described in broad strokes in the COMPETES report.
Because much of our new study focuses on how we got to where we are today—both America’s rise and the damage that’s been done to our competitive position over the last few decades.

What the report makes clear is that the success of the U.S. economy didn’t happen by accident. And it was not merely a case of America having better companies and better company builders.
That was important, of course, but the economic reality described by the report is that our success was also a product of smart federal investments and the right public sector priorities in three areas in particular—education, infrastructure and research.

In many ways, this study also underlines how perverted the policy discussion in Washington has become and how dominated it is by short-term thinking.

If you run a business, you make a distinction between what economists like to call investment and consumption.

There are long-term investments that have to be made to ensure the health of the company and its ability to grow far into the future.

There are also immediate expenditures that have to be made to keep the business functioning day-to-day—electricity payments and payroll, for example.
Too often in Washington, we get decisions that lump those two columns on the spreadsheet together. In that model, every expenditure, whether a short-term line item or a long-term investment that provides a return on investment for taxpayers, is the same.

It’s not. And I think policy makers used to understand that.

This administration gets the distinction, and I know you do, too. We understand that we must return to the consensus that sustained and strengthened our economic competitiveness through Democratic and Republican administrations.

And that’s even more critical amid a constrained budget environment that will likely last for a long time.

The economic reality described in this report is that there are certain areas—education, research and infrastructure, in particular—where the private sector, for practical reasons, under-invests.

But when federal and state governments have stepped in to fill the gap, there’s been a huge benefit to businesses and a big return on investment for taxpayers in the form of new jobs, higher living standards and life-changing advances, such as the Internet and aeronautics.

Unfortunately, that federal-level commitment has softened over the years.

As the rest of the world grew more competitive, the U.S. too often allowed itself to coast. The result? Those economic building blocks have eroded, and with it, so has our ability to compete economically.
Today, the U.S. ranks 14th in the world in terms of the percentage of college graduates it produces. We used to be Number One.

The World Economic Forum now ranks our infrastructure 24th-best. We used to be top 10.

Meanwhile, the current federal share of research spending is half what it was in the Eisenhower administration.

The good news is that the report does show that this administration is working to reverse the trendlines on all the fronts I mentioned. And your work on this Council is helping.

Your advanced manufacturing report coincided with the president’s announcement last summer of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. And last month I announced the opening of a new AMP program office within our National Institute of Standards and Technology.

I’m really excited about the promise of this effort, and I hope I can call on the members of this group for help.

Now, nothing in the COMPETES report will be revelatory for anyone in this room, and I should mention that the manufacturing section of the report draws heavily from your advanced manufacturing report.
What this report is—at its heart—is a call to arms: not just for one party or one branch of government, but for everyone who cares about our country.

The COMPETES report is a reminder of what helped make the American economy the strongest in the world and it’s filled with broad recommendations for what we need to do to retain our preeminence.  

With that, I want to turn the discussion over to you. The COMPETES report, by its very mandate, is more a backward-looking document. I want to hear from the members of this group some suggestions about how we move forward. . . .