Task force advocates innovation focus in military

A group of high-tech leaders and national security experts is asking President Bush to include basic defense research in his American competitiveness initiative.

The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation backed the request Thursday with a new report that warns that while funding for military research and development is at a record high, recent increases have focused on applying existing ideas to new weapons and equipment.

"We have been under-investing in the basic research needed for the next-generation military technology," the report warned. The task force was formed in 2004 to advocate for more federal support for research in the physical sciences and engineering.

Doug Comer of Intel, chairman of the task force, said the report updates and confirms trends in a report released last year. It found that federal investment in physical sciences and engineering continues to decline.

The new report notes that China has overtaken the United States as the largest information technology exporter and that North American companies accounted "for 41 percent of the IT patents filed in the United States, while 59 percent were from Asia."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the long-term goal should be not just combating terrorism but leading in science by investing in national security advances. "Otherwise we'll have opponents that have scientific capabilities we don't understand," Gingrich said.

He added that his biggest mistake as House speaker in the mid-1990s was not also tripling the National Science Foundation budget when Republicans doubled the National Institutes of Health budget.

Both Bush and incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have advocated innovation agendas that include more funding for basic science research, more programs to graduate more mathematics, science and engineering students, and improving effort to retain foreign-born engineers with visas.

But the broad agreement on what needs to be done has produced little action in the 109th Congress, and Gingrich said what it will take is for Congress to understand the long-term strategic threats and to appreciate that innovation will happen no matter what. "The question is not, 'Will it occur?', but, 'How much will occur in the U.S. versus outside the U.S.?'" he said.

Gingrich also said current programs and even proposals on the table are not enough to address the growing R&D investment and number of engineers in other countries as shown in the report.

Gingrich said he would like to see substantive prizes for innovations -- such as "a billion dollars tax-free for the first company that produces a hydrogen car [that sells] for less than $20,000." Or he said the United States could set a space goal and offer any company that gets there before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration the money they saved taxpayers.

Former North Atlantic Treaty Organization Ambassador David Abshire and Larry Wortzel, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said they hope the new Defense secretary will appoint a deputy more focused on science than policy. Bush has nominated former CIA chief Robert Gates to succeed outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

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