A conversation with Rep. Bart Gordon

A science agenda led by bipartisanship

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.)

Chip Somodevilla

With the new Democratic majority in Congress, there is a lot of talk on Capitol Hill about bipartisanship. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the new chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology, says common ground can be found on many of the issues that come before his committee. Issues like education and the competitiveness of U.S. workers are of universal concern, he said.

Gordon spoke to Washington Technology staff writer Doug Beizer about the committee, the issues it is wrestling with and the federal government's role in science and technology.

Q: How's the new majority affecting the committee?

Gordon: My approach is rather than try and develop these major, all-encompassing energy bills or other types of bills, we're trying to be thought of as the committee of good ideas and consensus. ... If we have a good idea, we want to package it, develop consensus on the committee, and hopefully put it on the consent calendar and move it. And I think as we start moving things, it's much better than trying to wait and try and develop these big bills that oftentimes take years and die of their own weight.

We're trying to develop consensus with Republicans, and if Republicans have a good idea, we want to use it too.

Q: Why does the United States need to be concerned about competitiveness?

Gordon: I have a daughter who is going to be 6 years old soon, and I am truly concerned that she could be a part of the first generation of Americans to inherit a national standard of living lower than their parents'. That is just a complete reversal of the American dream.

That's the reason a couple of years ago I joined [a group] asking the National Academies to do a report on the competitiveness of America in the 21st Century.
And it was a very sobering report, saying that we live in a very competitive environment, and we're on the wrong track.

Q: Do most people in the U.S. realize this is a problem?

Gordon: In communities all across the country, they're seeing offshoring of jobs, and I think people understand there is a problem, and they're looking for a way to deal with it. Once they understand the problem, we can explain that we're going to have to have a workforce that has higher skill levels.

What I try to explain to people is that we're trying to raise the skill level, not so every child in America can be a great scientist ? we would like some to be of course ? but high-school graduates simply have to work at a higher skill level so they can earn more. The problem is over 50 percent of the math teachers in the U.S. have neither a major nor certification to teach math, and 92 percent of the physical-science teachers have neither a major nor certification to teach science.

Q: What should we do to improve things?

Gordon: The problem is that as good as a teacher might be, if they don't know their subject well, then it's hard to communicate that and excite the students. And almost all the scientists that came before us told us that it was the teachers that sparked their excitement. So we have to raise content competency of our teachers. I've got legislation that will do it in a couple of different ways. First, we have legislation called 10,000 Teachers for 10 Million Minds. We want to have 10,000 scholarships a year for those students who will go into math, science and education, and agree to teach for five years. The importance of five years is that half of all teachers quit within that time.

Q: Can you get the money to do this?

Gordon: I introduced these ideas last year and, quite frankly, the old majority didn't want to do anything with them. Last year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi put together a competitiveness agenda, and this was really a hallmark of it. And so she is very much behind this, and I think you'll see it will be a high priority in getting funding.

Q: What did the National Academies recommend?

Gordon: To model an agency within the Department of Energy after the old Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the Defense Department, where we would take seven or eight peer-reviewed, cutting-edge technologies in alternative fuels or conservation and really crash on them with our national labs, the universities, the public sector and the private sector, and try to make a couple of breakthroughs.

Q: How important is NASA, and how much funding should it get?

Gordon: It's the leader in our aviation research, in our climate change research and, obviously, in human exploration, so I'm very concerned that NASA has really been given more missions to accomplish than funds to do them. We have a real problem to try and match up the missions with the money.

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