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Declan McCullagh

Staff Writer, CNET

WASHINGTON–Intel Chief Executive Craig Barrett and educators on Wednesday warned that the United States is in danger of losing its premier position as the world’s science and technology leader.

Barrett and other members of an “innovation” task force released a report that sounded one of the starkest warnings to date about greater foreign competition and reduced federal spending on basic research, which have combined to put “our economic competitiveness at risk.”

“The downside could be very, very dramatic, especially as other countries target research universities” and as foreign students are no longer as drawn to top-tier U.S. institutions, said Barrett, who told an audience at a press conference here about the wealth of engineers graduating from Chinese universities.

The recommendations of the “Task Force on the Future of American Innovation” were vague but unsurprising: More federal tax dollars should be spent on basic research through “sustained investments and informed policies.” Other members of the task force include Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, the American Mathematical Society, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

“We’re No. 2,” said Diana Hicks, chair of the public-policy school at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “When it comes to science and technology, the U.S. has never been No. 2.”

Among the statistics that the task force cited: The U.S. share of undergraduate science and engineering degrees is dropping; Asian students are becoming less likely to study in the United States; other nations are catching up to U.S. research and development spending; and the share of technical papers published by U.S. authors fell from 38 percent in 1988 to 31 percent in 2001.

The task force calls for “strong, sustained increases for research budgets” at federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense–but its report did not say whether the funds should be raised by tax increases, by greater deficit spending or by slicing other agencies’ budgets. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the national debt stands at $7.67 trillion, and President Bush’s recent budget would increase it by roughly $400 billion.

“We all support better science, but the presumption that it’s going to come out of a government spigot is one we should look at more closely,” said Fred Smith, president of the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“The real serious problem with America’s intellectual base are policies that make it so hard for bright people to come here,” said Smith, who opposes higher federal spending on research. The task force “might want to rethink the entire Patriot Act.”

A portion of the act titled “Foreign Student Monitoring Program,” which the task force’s report does not mention, has encountered criticism for discouraging foreign students from entering the United States. Also, in many cases, student and visitor visas have become more difficult to obtain since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.