The gathering took place at the Department of Commerce, where the National Association of Manufacturers hosted a discussion of ways to improve U.S. competitiveness.
The group is looking to the government to improve math and science education, modify immigration laws to allow foreign students to remain in the country after graduation, and fund the deployment of critical technologies, in addition to increasing R&D investment.
Warning that other countries, especially India, Korea and China, are accelerating their technology initiatives, NAM president John Engler said the United States will lose its competitive edge if changes arent made soon.
"We must recognize that a race is underway," Engler said. "If we dont move faster, it will be a challenge to maintain our standard of living and leadership."
Marketplace pressures have caused industry to invest less in basic research, leaving a gap for the government to fill, said Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp.
Craig Mundie, senior vice president and chief technology officer of Advanced Strategies and Policy at Microsoft Corp., said that R&D today focuses primarily on applied research rather than solving basic problems in technology.
"Only a few companies in the world are still funding basic research in computing and software," he said, adding that Microsoft and IBM are two of the few. "I think that pressures are clearly there to focus more on the D than the R."
Mundie said that when traveling overseas he was struck by the intensity with which students study, compared with American students. The sheer numbers of educated individuals in other countries could leave the United States at a disadvantage if our math and science training doesnt improve, he said.
"Were dwarfed by the combination of the populations in India and China alone," Mundie said, adding that those countries are moving toward knowledge-based economies.
Several participants complained that they cannot find qualified technology experts, and expressed concern that the pool of researchers is becoming dangerously low, as half of the countrys scientists and engineers will retire in the next 10 to 12 years. Calls were made to change immigration laws so that foreign students would be encouraged to remain in the United States after graduating.
"The future supply of talent is becoming more and more difficult to recruit," said Martin Jischke, president of Purdue University. "We are in a global competition for this talent."
However, Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., said part of the reason for the shortage of qualified employees may be the industry itself. As companies have outsourced engineering jobs to other countries, American students have become less inclined to become engineers, he said.
"This has been created as much by a U.S. industry that has tried to meet quarterly estimates and sent these jobs overseas," Manzullo said.
The Bush Administration favors a climate in which entrepreneurial risk is encouraged, said David Sampson, deputy secretary at the Department of Commerce.
"President Bush knows that the United States faces new competitive pressures which are global in nature," Sampson said. "We must create an environment where failure isnt fatal."