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Lofty words, feeble action on energy, research funds, says SPIE

Bellingham, WA, USA - 21 December 2007 - The world has taken a double blow from the U.S. Congress and Administration in the unseemly haste to make bad compromises to get home for the holidays or back on the campaign trail, said Eugene Arthurs, CEO of the optics and photonics society SPIE.

Arthurs called the Energy Bill passed by Congress this week "a sad capitulation to the past" in the face of an energy-related environmental crisis. "The bill does little to address the fossil fuel addiction of the United States and the rest of the developed world or the acceleration toward the same ailment of the three billion or so people in the emergent nations. The promise of renewable energy and energy efficiencies such as in lighting, initiatives that require government leadership, have been deferred or abandoned," he said.

The second blow was the failure to adequately increase support for science and technology, Arthurs said. There is a widely recognized need to ensure the research activity and talent to tackle these and other problems, and to enable progress and security. However, support for the major science and technology (S&T) agencies has been essentially appropriated away.

"As part of the S&T community, we need to become more activist about the grave issues facing our world," Arthurs said, pointing out the community's responsibility to propose and evaluate technical solutions and go beyond detached observation.

"We need to communicate much better with the public and with the decision makers we have elected," he said. "We in the 'hard sciences' need to interact more closely with our colleagues in economics and the social sciences to understand the viability of proposed solutions.

"Renewable energy is much more than a set of formidable scientific and engineering challenges. Significant change will only happen in 'the real world,' where our contribution is not just technically but socially practical. SPIE will continue to work for our mutually entangled futures."

"Fat, dumb and happy"

Philanthropist Eli Broad, who gave $1.22 billion to education and scientific research from 2003 through 2007, is among those who see quality of education as one of America's biggest problem. "If you see what is happening in other countries - China, India, Korea, Japan, elsewhere - they are doing a far better job at educating their children. Frankly, in America we have become fat, dumb and happy," he said in a November 2007 interview in the Financial Times

Norman Augustine, chairman of the National Academies Committee that produced the 2005 report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," this fall presented an 82-page essay highlighting two critical issues that must be corrected: what he characterizes as America's "failing" K-12 education system, and insufficient federal funding of basic research.

In his essay, "Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?", Augustine asserts that "U.S. federal support of research in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering - when adjusted for inflation - has been stagnant for two decades. … as a percentage of GDP, federal investment in research in the physical sciences and engineering has been reduced by more than half since 1970."

He notes that, "For the first time, the world's most powerful particle accelerator does not reside in the United States; this virtually ensures that the next round of breakthroughs in this fundamental discipline will originate abroad."

M. J. Soileau, Vice President for Research and Commercialization at the University of Central Florida, sees a disregard in planning for the future. "We have crossed the threshold and now import more knowledge-based production than we export. Of 25 major IPOs last year, three were in the U.S. Seven years ago we crossed the threshold in STEM graduate education wherein more than half of the graduates now come from outside the U.S., and now we are making it hard for international students to come here to study. Meanwhile, Asia and Europe are investing heavily in science and technology research, while we're eating our seed corn, spending billions of dollars on war and building concrete barricades around buildings. We've saddled our children with debt and we're not making the investments that will give them the tools to pay off that debt."

Donald O'Shea, Emeritus Professor of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Editor of the journal Optical Engineering, notes a drop in submissions to the journal from U.S. researchers as part of the trend. "Only with the reversal of this crippling of scientific funding can more speculative investigations that can provide great advances required to remain competitive in the years to come."

SPIE President-Elect Kevin Harding said research needs the support of both government and industry to provide solutions for our changing future. "As a facilitator, SPIE provides a forum for critical information exchange essential for such development, but must also provide a clear, collective input to government and industry leaders on the needs to get the job done," Harding said. "SPIE has long been recognized as a well-connected organization with representation from industry, academia and government both in the U.S. and internationally. As a society, we plan to aggressively work to strengthen those connections with the hope of driving the science and technology strategies of the future."

About SPIE

SPIE is an international society advancing an interdisciplinary approach to the science and application of light. Serving the interests of its more than 188,000 active constituents representing 138 different countries, SPIE acts as a catalyst for collaboration among technical disciplines for information exchange, continuing education, publishing opportunities, patent precedent, and career and professional growth. As the organizer and sponsor of approximately 26 major conferences and education programs annually in North America, Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific, SPIE provides publishing, speaking, and learning opportunities on emerging technologies. For more information, visit SPIE.org

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