Chairman Rockefeller Remarks on Innovation in America: Opportunities and Obstacles

June 22, 2010

JDR Head ShotWASHINGTON, D.C.—American democracy, American financial markets, and American education have all made our nation and our economy the most innovative in the world. With every new generation, we face new challenges and new competition, but the fundamental spirit and strength of our system has not changed. We are still building, still growing, and still creating.

Americans started the technology revolution, and we will drive it in the 21st century. Investments in information technology (IT), including health IT, smart grid, and broadband will continue to spur our economy, foster new growth, and connect smaller communities in places like West Virginia to new opportunities and a wider world around the globe.

We are only now starting to realize the enormous economic potential of perhaps our greatest technological contribution to the world in the last 50 years: the Internet. American research and investment in supercomputing, cybersecurity, cyber-physical systems, data mining, social computing, simulation and modeling will all pay great dividends for our innovation economy in the years to come.

But we have to keep pushing forward, because past success does not automatically guarantee future opportunities and we have challenges we must address. 

The United States has been losing market share in global high-tech exports, shifting from a trade surplus in the late 1990s to an $80 billion deficit in 2008. While American research and development (R&D) expenditures grew at a rate of 5 percent to 6 percent annually over the period 1996–2007, the R&D growth rate in Asian economies often exceeded 10 percent. In China’s case, the rate of growth was 20 percent. 

With this hearing, “Innovation in America: Opportunities and Obstacles,” we have a responsibility to ask whether our nation has the programs and policies in place to support innovation and stay competitive. Will we continue to attract, educate, and retain brilliant and ambitious minds from all corners of the world? Or will we become complacent, protectionist, and isolationist, making it easier for those brilliant and ambitious minds to seek opportunities elsewhere?

I very much share President Obama’s belief that America’s future lies in our ability to maintain our edge and compete globally. The federal government plays an important role in providing some of the needed resources to support both the key technology and the leading minds that drive innovation in this country. Right now, through The Recovery Act we have committed billions of dollars to building new, smart technologies into our aging infrastructure. This is not just about investing in long-term growth, it will also create thousands of new jobs in the short term. 

I firmly believe in strengthening the roles of the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and other federal agencies. I plan to introduce the America COMPETES reauthorization bill very soon to promote basic research programs and maintain and strengthen America’s science, technology, engineering, and math education.

We have heard in this committee, more than once in recent months, just how fundamental a world-class Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) workforce is to addressing the challenges of the 21st century—from developing clean sources of energy that reduce our dependence on foreign oil to discovering cures for diseases. I have met with STEM educators in school districts like Parkersburg, West Virginia, who work every day to ignite passion in their students for years to come.

American innovators must continue to be empowered to compete on any playing field. I am troubled by efforts in other countries to restrict American companies from entering technology markets. The growing trend of intellectual property theft abroad is just as disturbing. We have to do better to limit international protectionism and illegal activities. These new challenges threaten American businesses’ ability to compete in the global marketplace. That hurts our entire economy, and that hurts everyone.

I want to close with a strong note of optimism. With the right support, strategy, and investment, I know that the 21st century can be yet another amazing century of American innovation. I want to thank Senator Klobuchar for holding this important hearing, and I look forward to working with her and the rest of my colleagues on these important issues over the months and years ahead.