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Remarks at the Business and Innovation Conference at Lehman College, Bronx, New York

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank
Remarks at the Business and Innovation Conference at Lehman College, Bronx, New York

Thank you, Senior Vice Chancellor Hershenson, for hosting us here at Lehman College and for the work you do to enable hundreds of thousands of students to take CUNY classes each year.

And thank you, Congressman Rangel, for the many ways you have served our country and the people of New York.  It’s great to be here in your District to visit with students, entrepreneurs and small business owners – I’m sure Director Hinson feels the same way.

I’m pleased that we’re meeting at a place of higher education.  I’ve had the chance to visit many labs, research centers, and tech transfer programs at universities around the country.  So I’ve seen first-hand that these environments have a way of sparking new ideas among faculty and students.  And in some cases, those new ideas, combined with a bit of entrepreneurship, can generate new businesses and jobs.  

How many of you here today run a small business? You’re part of the reason that the U.S. economy has experienced 3 years of steady growth:

  • American businesses have created over 6 million new jobs.
  • Our housing market is healing, both in terms of housing values and housing starts.
  • Consumer spending – responsible for two-thirds of our economy – is starting to come back.
  • And U.S. exports – the things we make here in America that foreigners want to buy – hit another all-time record in 2012 - $2.2 trillion.

But there is still more work to do.  As the President said in his State of the Union address, we need to “reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class.”

To do that, we need to make key investments that will ensure America’s long-term competitiveness.  And – right now – we’re definitely hearing some alarm bells:

  • The current federal share of research spending is half what it was in the Eisenhower Administration.  
  • The American Society of Civil Engineers just gave the U.S. infrastructure a grade of “D+”.  The World Economic Forum ranks our infrastructure at 24th – we used to be in the top 10.
  • And America ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of college graduates we produce – we used to be number one.

The good news is that none of these trends are inevitable or unchangeable.  There are clear policy avenues that we can take to reverse the trendlines on all of these fronts.  

So, today, let’s talk about three areas where we need to make ongoing investments to ensure that America remains the global economic leader: innovation, infrastructure and education.

An innovative economy starts with strong public investments in basic research and development.  Every major developed country recognizes the need to put public dollars into R&D.  

In the U.S., the federal government has played a crucial role in the development of key innovations in the 20th century.  The Internet, satellite communications, semi-conductors and other job-generating advances would not have been possible without the wise investment of taxpayer dollars.

Unfortunately, since 1980, federal funding for basic research has dropped from 70% of all basic research funding to just 57%.

To reverse that trend, the President has set of goal of doubling federal funding for basic R&D by 2016.  His budgets have pushed for increases in funding for the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy labs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology – which is housed at the Department of Commerce.  These agencies support core scientific research – including some that takes place right here at Lehman.

Governments around the world are increasing their public support for their universities and research institutions.  So must we.

And we can’t stop there.  Supporting innovation also means moving more game-changing ideas from the lab to the marketplace.

The universities in New York understand this.  In fact, CUNY, NYU, and Columbia University were just awarded $3.7 million from the National Science Foundation for what’s called a “regional innovation node.”  Their collective goal is to turn more science and engineering discoveries into startups and new products.  

That’s a smart approach – an approach that the Obama Administration is applying elsewhere, too.

For example, last year, the Commerce Department helped launch a pilot project to demonstrate the value of the Administration’s proposed National Network for Manufacturing Innovation.  

This pilot project is focused on maximizing the potential of 3D printing, a new technology that is dramatically changing how we think about production.  The pilot involves a partnership of research centers, universities, community colleges, tech transfer groups, and manufacturers… all located in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania.  

In his State of the Union, the president announced that the Administration is going to launch three more pilot institutes this year in other fields that have potential to drive innovation.  And he’s called on Congress to fund a larger network of such institutes.

Make no mistake. Many of our global competitors have had programs like this in place for decades. So it’s time to step up our game, because we want good-paying, high-tech jobs right here in the U.S.

A second major area where we need to invest more is infrastructure.    

I was just in Brazil for the U.S.-Brazil CEO Forum.  I met with top government and business leaders who talked about how Brazil is making major infrastructure investments to prepare for the World Cup and the Olympics.  I told them that U.S. businesses are eager to partner with them to help with those projects…

But the fact is – when it comes to infrastructure – we have plenty of work to do right here at home, as President Obama emphasized Friday in Miami.

A dozen studies have described the dangerous deterioration in American infrastructure, which is impacting our ability to compete.  

With interest rates this low, we need to put construction crews back to work building the roads and bridges that transport our goods.  

That’s a big reason that the President is calling for public-private partnerships like a National Infrastructure Bank.   This bank would operate independently from government, and the board of the bank would be made up of infrastructure experts.  With an initial investment of $10 billion, the Bank would help co-fund major projects alongside the private sector and state and local governments.  

In the past, ideas like this have had strong bipartisan support.  Everyone knows that better infrastructure translates to greater efficiency, faster delivery of goods, stronger exports, more stable supplies of energy, and much more.  

Providing and maintaining our basic infrastructure is one of the key public goods that government should provide.  We can honor that obligation in smart and innovative ways, and this Administration will continue to work with Congress to do just that.

A third and final area we must invest in is education and training, because a globally competitive economy requires a globally competitive workforce.   

We all know that America’s entrepreneurs, business owners, and workers are what make our private sector so vibrant and dynamic.  We need to make sure that you can succeed – and that students such as those here on this campus – can follow in your footsteps.

That’s why I was so pleased to hear about the new 70-million-dollar Science Building that just opened here.  It’s being called a “gateway to the sciences” for young people in the Bronx.  Its goal is to cultivate talent in the critical STEM areas – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And I’m particularly pleased to hear that Lehman College is simultaneously helping more women and minorities find a path to STEM careers.  Women and minorities remain vastly underrepresented in STEM fields.  As long as more than half of the U.S. population can’t find a path to science-related fields, we will have inadequate numbers of STEM graduates overall.

This is a major competitiveness issue.  In recent years, only about 13 percent of U.S. college graduates got degrees in the STEM fields.  That is much lower than other countries like Korea and Germany where 25 percent of students receive STEM degrees.

At the same time, the opportunity is clear: Growth in STEM job openings has climbed three times as fast as other jobs over the past decade.  Not only are these good-paying, challenging, rewarding jobs… but the workers in these jobs play a key role in inventing, applying, and producing new technologies that lead to even more jobs.

We need to wake up to the fact that we are in a global competition for talent and I should note that this also means we must be able to attract and retain the brightest minds from around the world through commonsense immigration reforms.

  • There are many foreign students who come to the U.S., get a world-class STEM education, but then are forced to leave.
  • The President wants to staple a green card to the STEM degrees of foreign students, especially if they have a job offer from a U.S. company.  We can’t afford to lose those job creators to one of our competitors abroad.

In closing, it’s clear that we all need to work together to ensure that our economy continues to grow and create jobs.

And speaking of working together as a team reminds me that the NCAA tournament is wrapping up this weekend.

I won’t ask for a show of hands of how many brackets are already busted as we go into the Final Four…

But what becomes clear to all of us as we watch these games is that no team is able to advance because they have just one single great player…

Similarly, to drive our competitiveness in the 21st century, we need a full and deep roster of players.

  • We need faculty, staff and students at places like Lehman College.
  • We need entrepreneurs and business owners in communities like the Bronx and Harlem.
  • And we need leaders like Congressman Rangel and President Obama who are working every day to give our private sector the tools it needs to succeed.

As a team – and only as a team –

  • We can help more of our businesses innovate.
  • We can build an infrastructure for the 21st century.
  • And we can educate and empower the next generation.

If we’re successful – and I’m confident that we will be – the U.S. will remain the global economic leader… and the prosperity of our families and our communities will continue to grow in the years ahead.