They argue that, just as a stronger focus on maths helped the US top the Soviet Sputnik launch by putting a man on the moon, the US needs to improve maths education to win an economic race with China and India and a national security race against terrorism.

Groups are worried they will be unable to get policymakers' attention without something like Sputnik, which became both a national embarrassment and rallying point to accelerate US maths and science efforts.

Susan Traiman, an education and workforce policy lobbyist for the Business Roundtable, said: "The interesting sort of difference in the dynamic then and the dynamic now is that we were competing with a military threat, whereas now it's much more an economic threat."

It may be a hard sell in Washington.

Political sums

Though it is unlikely anyone in Congress will say maths is unimportant, it may be tough to convince lawmakers to devote new money to hiring and training teachers in a time of tight budgets.

Some may feel there is no need politically or practically for a major education initiative just four years after George Bush Snr's overhaul, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Some proposals suggest using taxpayer money to boost pay for maths teachers, an idea opposed by the largest US teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA).

It wants higher salaries for all teachers, regardless of specialty. NEA dislikes the notion of paying teachers of particular subjects more than others.

Reg Weaver, NEA president, said: "If you focus on working conditions that are good, salaries that are commensurate to ones ability in the field, ones professionalism, you would not have to worry about whether you had enough professionals coming into the field."

The lobbying also looks to public opinion, and it can be difficult to inspire much passion for maths even though Americans worry about jobs moving overseas, the number of college maths majors is declining and student maths scores lag behind those of many other countries.

Memories

The Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, an epic event to Americans alive at the time but now known to many only from brief references in history class. The US sent Neil Armstrong on his moonwalk in 1969, ancient history for students now debating whether to take a tough high school maths class or pursue maths careers.

Students are too young to recall
the mission to the Moon

Lobbyists acknowledge those challenges, and say they see reason for optimism.

A bipartisan group of senators recently proposed legislation offering incentives for maths majors to pursue teaching careers, and Bush's State of the Union speech Tuesday is expected to mention US competitiveness.

The National Academies, a group of science and technology experts, has joined those calling for substantial investments in maths and science education.

Business lobbies - including the US Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable and TechNet, a group of hi-tech CEOs - are pressing for a national push on maths. And some in business have already started pursuing maths teacher improvement efforts on their own.

Raytheon, General Electric and IBM are among companies with programmes aimed at making maths cool: turning children on to maths and improving maths education.

Maths for America offers scholarships, mentoring and bonuses to maths whizzes who become teachers. The programme was founded by Jim Simons, who earned a doctorate in maths through a Pentagon programme during the space race, worked as a maths professor and went on to found a hedge fund and become a Wall Street billionaire.