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How we make America No. 1 again

The United States has long been known for our groundbreaking inventions and innovations that change the way people live around the world.Over our nation's history, we've made the seemingly impossible possible time and time again: from pioneering human flight to creating new ways to communicate and share information around the globe instantaneously.

These inventions didn't happen overnight, and they didn't happen just anywhere. There is a reason they came about in America: our business and legal environment encouraged cutting-edge science and attracted the best and the brightest minds.

However, the factors that once made our country a hotbed for innovation are increasingly at risk.

Chris Coons, U.S. Senator
Mark Wilson | Getty Images
Chris Coons, U.S. Senator

A new study from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) confirms this dangerous trend by ranking countries based on how their policies contribute to global innovation. What makes this study unique is that it marks the first comprehensive look at how national policies in each country impact international innovation.More specifically, the study rates countries favorably if their efforts to encourage innovation internally also encourage global innovation. Likewise,countries are rated unfavorably if they try to bolster their own innovation capacity at the expense of other countries. Even in our increasingly global economy, discussions of innovation and competitiveness often fail to make this distinction.

On a per capita basis, the U.S. comes in a disappointing 10th place overall. In short, while we aren't actively harming the global innovation system, we could be doing much more to contribute to it. Moreover, innovation policy isn't a zero-sum game: Steps that we take to support global innovation have clear, tangible benefits right here at home, too.

The nation that brought the world the assembly line, the automobile, and the iPhone can surely do better than 10th place.

Fortunately, there are a number of common sense policies with bipartisan support that Congress can enact to bring us closer to No. 1 and ensure we remain competitive in the global economy for decades to come. These policies include reforming our broken tax code, making smart investments in research and development, and revitalizing an American manufacturing base that was once the envy of the world.

To help transform these proposals from broad ideas into specific laws, I joined with Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas to found the Competitiveness Caucus in the Senate. Along with 12 other senators, both Republicans and Democrats, the Competitiveness Caucus has worked to build support for policies that will rebuild our competitive edge.

Thanks to these efforts, the caucus has helped break through the congressional gridlock to deliver real successes. I was thrilled the year-end tax extenders bill that was signed into law last December included a number of ideas I have advocated for to encourage businesses to innovate and create jobs. These provisions will permanently extend and increase access to one of the most important tax credits available to American businesses, there search and development credit, which creates an incentive for companies to invest in R&D.

In fact, a key reason ITIF's study ranked the U.S. as No. 10 was our failure to invest more in R&D and increase access to the tax credits that promote it.

Until we made it permanent, the R&D tax credit was extended only retroactively, leaving businesses lurching from extension to extension, unsure whether they'd have access to the credit in a year's time. In that uncertain and unstable environment, it's easy to understand why businesses that wanted to invest in R&D didn't feel safe doing so. Moreover, until now, the tax credit was not available to start-ups, which are the leading source of job creation and innovation in this country. Now, American businesses of all sizes will have the long-term stability and support they need to grow their business and take risks.

Still, R&D alone won't get us back to number one. We also have to look to our manufacturing sector, which is responsible for three-quarters of U.S. industry R&D. Manufacturing serves as a driving force behind America's ability to innovate and remains key to our continued prosperity and competitiveness. But manufacturers are often unable to fill open positions because prospective employees don't have the necessary skills, from hard math and engineering to the ability to think creatively and work as part of a team.

Many of these jobs require at least a two-year college degree, if not more. Without a sustained commitment to training a highly skilled workforce, American manufacturing — and, in turn, American innovation — will suffer.

That's why I introduced both the Manufacturing Universities Act and the Manufacturing Skills Act. The bipartisan Manufacturing Universities proposal would designate 25 "Manufacturing Universities" across the country to receive up to $5 million per year for four years to revamp engineering programs so they are producing mechanical, industrial, and software engineers with the right skills for today's manufacturing jobs. Manufacturing Skills would complement this effort by helping cities and states modernize their job training programs to reflect the specific workforce needs of manufacturers in their region.

These are just two of the bipartisan proposals that the Senate Competitiveness Caucus and I are working to advance in Congress.

These are the types of policies that will not only support global innovation, but also create jobs across the country. These efforts will sustain the American legacy of groundbreaking innovation that led to the airplane, the Internet, and countless other technologies that we cannot imagine living without today.

As the world population continues to grow rapidly,presenting both greater opportunities and more difficult human and environmental challenges, it is critical that the international community work together to deliver the technologies, cures, and services that will meet these challenges head on.

With our unmatched resources and the strongest, most capable workforce in the world, America must lead this effort by implementing today the policies that will catalyze the innovations of tomorrow.

Commentary by U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), the founder and chair of the bipartisan Senate Competitiveness Caucus and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Before he was elected to the Senate, he worked for a manufacturing company based in Delaware, and served as county executive of Delaware's largest county, New Castle County. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisCoons.

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