The National Science Foundation is launching a $5 million pilot project this year to increase the ranks of high-tech workers within two to three years through grants to universities and community colleges that produce more science and technology graduates. Under the new project, schools would get three-year grants to promote science and technology subjects, fund internships, create new courses and take additional steps to attract more students to technology careers.
The project was inspired by the so-called Tech Talent bill proposed in October by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). Over the next decade, U.S. companies will need 50 percent more workers with technical skills, Lieberman says, and the bill would expand the pool of U.S. citizens or permanent residents with science, math, engineering and technology degrees.
The measure would counter a 15-year trend in which the number of students majoring in science and technology fields has remained flat or declined, according to TechNet, a lobbying organization for high-tech and biotechnology companies in Palo Alto, Calif. Even though computer companies laid off thousands and the quota for H1-B applications wasn’t filled last year, TechNet President and CEO Rick White thinks plenty of new jobs won’t be filled when the economy rebounds unless more U.S. students are trained for them. The H1-B visas, available to foreign workers with special skills, are “a temporary solution,” says Michael Kirk, a spokesman for Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), a cosponsor of the House bill.
There’s another reason legislators want to reduce reliance on foreign technology workers: national security. Lieberman says that after Sept. 11, policy makers see technological innovation as “a critical factor in our military superiority.” Without enough qualified workers, security of the nation’s critical infrastructure could be compromised, he says.
Tech Talent bill supporters plan to push for enactment of the measure by the end of this year. Heidi Mohlman Tringe, a spokeswoman for Boehlert, says the House Science Committee will hold hearings on the bill in February or March.
Dollars for Security
The new focus in Washington,D.C., on homeland defense has generated numerous proposals for funding research and deployment of advanced information security technologies. One target for lawmakers: biometrics, a set of technologies for matching individuals’ fingerprints or other physical characteristics with digitized versions in a database, Provisions in the aviation security bill that President Bush signed last fall authorize the Department of Transportation and the Defense Department to spend $20 million over the next five years to research biometrics and other security technologies.
Another area of interest: hardware and software for network security. House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) introduced legislation in December that would allocate $880 million over five years for the National Science Foundation to give university researchers more money to study cybersecurity, and for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create a grant program for academic-industry partnerships to develop better network security products. At a press conference Dec. 5, Boehlert said market forces have given companies little incentive to invest in advanced security technology on their own, so the government needs to step in.
Heidi Mohlman Tringe, Boehlert’s press secretary, says Boehlert hopes to convince the House to pass the bill early this year. If the measure is enacted, CIOs should find improved computer security products resulting from government-sponsored research within the next few years.
-S.K. and Elana Varon