Commentary | Ransoming Our Future

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We live in a world of short attention spans and instant gratification. Also a world where the basic grease of the United States’ democratic form of government — the requirement for compromise — has been completely cast aside, resulting in the binding, locking and subsequent halt of the gears of government. And because of this our future has been held for ransom on the altar of “my way or the highway” and over the lack of an ability to focus on the future and implement a long-term vision. 

The situation that has developed in the nation’s aerospace industry serves as only one example of the ransoming of America’s future. Research by the Aerospace Industries Association and other organizations shows that the aerospace and defense industry supports 3.5 million jobs, representing some $109.14 billion in salaries — real earnings that are pumped back into our economy as workers go about their daily lives. This makes the research and development (R&D) associated with our industry one of our nation’s leading economic powerhouses. 

As America’s largest manufacturing exporter, the industry contributes 2.23 percent of the gross domestic product. Its workforce is highly skilled, innovative and globally competitive. Only through the continued strength of the industry will we be able to provide current and future opportunities for young people to have secure, high-paying jobs that, at the same time, advance our national and economic security. 

The recent shutdown, the specter of future shutdowns and Congress’ recent history of adopting continuing resolutions instead of actual budgets destabilize the industry as well as hurt the current and future economy and jobs.

Both large and small companies are an important part of America’s aerospace industry. As a matter of fact, small businesses generate a large percentage of jobs in the sector, including 64 percent of net new private-sector jobs and 43 percent of high-tech jobs, and are responsible for 33 percent of the sector’s exports. Recent data reveal that small businesses receive 20 percent of all Department of Defense (DoD) contracts and 35 percent of DoD subcontracts, as well as 18 percent of NASA contracts and 38 percent of NASA subcontracts. These businesses form the backbone of our aerospace and defense industries, with many being the sole suppliers of critical components for major weapon systems, aircraft, spacecraft and satellite systems — components that allow a missile to hit its target, or enable a pump on the international space station to circulate oxygen. 

In our current environment, as politicians bicker about funding the government, businesses that depend on government contracts face the prospect of having to reduce their workforces, scale back output, postpone crucial capital investments or close their doors entirely — threatening future progress and risking a domino effect of failure that leaves our nation technologically bankrupt. Small businesses are especially vulnerable, and as they contract or fail will start a chain reaction that will propagate through the prime contractors and into our national economy.

The reach of the industry extends to our nation’s great research universities as well. It is on campuses across the country where groundbreaking R&D occurs and the next generation of scientists and engineers are trained. Unfortunately, our universities currently trail most of the developed world in terms of support from the government, ranking 22nd according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. Without committed, ongoing support, these institutions will be unable to hire and keep top faculty, support deserving students and researchers, and budget for capital and technology expansions of their science and engineering departments. 

The ultimate impact of these trends will be a further erosion of our nation’s scientific and technological capacity, which will negatively impact the size and skills of our science and technology workforce. Continued failure to provide stable funding means we will cede leadership in these areas to economic powers that have the political will to support their industrial base and research efforts with consistent government policy year after year. We owe it to these dedicated researchers and students to support their efforts in a stable, predictable and consistent manner, free from doubt and uncertainty about where the next dollar is coming from as they fulfill their vital roles.

The stability of our aerospace industrial base, and of ongoing R&D efforts in related areas of science and technology, is critical to U.S. national security and to our nation’s economy, infrastructure and future workforce. But that stability is eroded by the rampant uncertainty fueled by never-ending continuing resolutions, political brinkmanship and declining budgets. The trend of repeatedly funding government through continuing resolutions will slowly eat away at the seed corn that has sustained the technological advances that historically fed the economy and advanced the human experience. 

The result of not having a coherent and stable funding policy for aerospace, defense and R&D funding may be invisible initially, but in five to seven years we will wake up and all of a sudden be behind in science and technology with no quick or easy way to catch up. 

The real bill will be paid on lost competitiveness for the next generation, and opportunities exported to countries that sustained their investments in R&D regardless of temporary economic crises.

For these important communities in the United States to remain robust, innovative and world-leading, we need to return to principled, well-thought-out and sustained budgeting that provides necessary R&D funding to support innovation and invention. We need to return to a long-term mindset that strategically takes into account the roles that science and technology play in the economic future of the nation. 

A return to normal budgeting procedures complemented by a long-term strategic focus will reassure private industry and the research community that the federal government is serious about its support of the sector. It also will have a positive impact on our economy and enable the aerospace and defense R&D sectors to continue their history of creating meaningful, well-paying jobs.

The aerospace and defense R&D communities are doing what they can to minimize the price of the ransom we are currently facing. Every single entity — government, industry and academia — is engaged in discussions, sharing information and performing analyses to ensure that they are working efficiently and effectively so that every available dollar is being used wisely. Despite these improved efficiencies, too many opportunities for collaboration and stimulating innovation are being missed due to the continuing uncertainty in our environment. 

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Science & Technology Forum in January 2014 near Washington will play host to the important sectors of the aerospace community as we strive to address these important issues and look for ways to maintain our leadership in R&D and science and technology. AIAA will continue to work with our members and partners to foster these critical discussions, but we can only solve part of the problem. We need a coherent, long-term stable vision that can carry us forward as a nation. That can only occur when the ransoming of our future for short-term gains and short-sighted goals ceases and reasoned communication and a willingness to compromise are introduced back into our society, once more lubricating the gears of government and moving us forward.

 

Sandra H. “Sandy” Magnus is executive director of AIAA, the world’s largest technical society dedicated to the global aerospace profession, with more than 35,000 individual members in 79 countries.