Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Are We Losing the War For Innovation? Part III

For a book to be posted on the New York Times “best seller” list every week for a year and a half after being published is quite a feat. While The Da Vinci Code has had an even longer run, the book I’m now referring to is not fiction, so its longevity is even more remarkable. Amazing too is its ranking as of this writing as number four on the list.

The book, titled The World is Flat: a Brief History of the Twenty First Century, is authored by Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Although its content is somewhat controversial, its primary concept has been most influential since the book has been acknowledged and read by world leaders and lesser politicians, industry executives, economists, and academics.

The most concise and illustrative description of its contents was summed up in a review published in The Christian Science Monitor as follows: “Flatness is his [Friedman’s] metaphor du journey because it simply describes a great leveling going on, driven by new technology and software that allows individuals from Canton, China, to Canton, Ohio, to collaborate and compete on a whole new scale that is the single most important trend in the world today.”

Among the many topics covered by Friedman is the impact that globalization has on education and its role on a country’s ability to encourage innovation.

Friedman quotes Shirley Ann Jackson, a physicist, president of Renssellaer Polytechnic Institute, and the 2004 president of the American Association of Science. Jackson warns, “For the first time in more than a century, the United States could well find itself falling behind other countries in the capacity for scientific discovery, innovation, and economic development.” While Friedman cites many reasons contributing to this potential threat, much of it has to do with what might be termed the failings of America’s intellectual capital in what has become a race within a knowledge driven global economy.

This is best noted in a wide collection of data published every two years by the National Science Board (NSB) under the title of Science and Engineering Indicators. Although the 2006 data is now available, Friedman uses the 2004 issue and since the results have changed little over that period, the data below is from Friedman’s book.
  1. There is a “troubling decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers.” [although] “The number of jobs requiring science and engineering training will grow” [at a faster pace than other job opportunities.]

  2. “The NSB report found that the number of American eighteen to twenty-four year-olds who receive science degrees has fallen to seventeenth in the world, whereas we ranked third three decades ago.”

  3. “Of the 2.8 million (bachelor degrees) in science and engineering (S&E) granted worldwide in 2003, 1.2 million were earned by Asian students in Asian universities, 830 thousand were granted in Europe, and 400,000 in the United States. In engineering specifically, universities in Asian countries now produce eight times as many bachelor degrees as the United States.”

  4. “Many of those who entered the expanding S&E workforce in the 1960’s and 1970’s (the baby boom generation) are expected to retire in the next twenty years, and their children are not choosing science and engineering careers in the same numbers as their parents.”

  5. “60 percent of the nation’s top science students and 65 percent of the top mathematics students are children of recent immigrants, according to an analysis of award winners in three scholastic competitions.”

  6. “Asian countries are setting the pace in advanced science and math.”

Friedman sums up this segment on education with his thought, “Because it takes fifteen years to create a scientist or advanced engineer, starting from when that young man or woman first gets hooked on science and math in elementary school, we should be embarking on an all-hands-on-deck, no-holds-barred, no-budget-too-large crash program for science and engineering education immediately. The fact that we are not doing so is our quiet crisis. Scientists and engineers don’t grow on trees. They have to be educated through a long process, because, ladies and gentlemen, this really is rocket science.”

There is a fast growing, almost explosive recognition that the United States is facing a significant, perhaps momentous crisis relating to our ability to compete in a very different global environment than has existed in the past. Here is another example of that fact: “Human capital—the quality of our work force—is a particularly important factor in our competitiveness. Our public school system comprises the foundation of this asset. But as it exists today, that system compares, in the aggregate, abysmally with those of other developed—and even developing nations…particularly in the fields which underpin most innovation: science, mathematics, and technology.”

The above is one of the major conclusions contained in a report titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” developed by 20 scientists, academic leaders and business executives at the request of members of Congress. The report was presented in late 2005 at a Congressional hearing by Norman Augustine, the retired Chairman of Lockheed Martin Corporation. During the presentation, Mr. Augustine provided the following rather depressing outlook: “It is the unanimous view of our committee that America today faces a serious and intensifying challenge with regard to its future competitiveness and standard of living. Further, we appear to be on a losing path.”

Cited in this report are a number of examples that clearly signify that a critical situation currently exists.
  1. “For the cost of one engineer in the United States, a company can hire eleven in India.

  2. Thirty eight percent of the scientists and engineers in America holding doctorates were born abroad.

  3. Chemical companies closed seventy facilities in the U.S. in 2004, and have tagged forty more for shutdown. Of 120 chemical plants being built around the world with price tags of $1 billion or more, one is in the U.S... 50 are in China.

  4. In 1997, China had fewer than 50 research centers managed by multinational corporations. By 2004 there were over 600.

  5. In a recent international test involving mathematical understanding, U.S. students finished in 27 th place among the nations participating.

  6. About two thirds of the students studying chemistry and physics in U.S. high schools are taught by teachers with no major certificate in the subject. In the case of math taught in grades five through twelve, the fraction is one half. Many such students are being taught by graduates in physical education.

  7. In 2003, foreign students earned 59 percent of the engineering doctorates awarded in U.S. universities.

  8. In 2003, only three American companies ranked among the top ten recipients of patents granted by the U.S. patent office.

  9. The United States is said to have over ten million illegal immigrants, but the number of legal visas set-aside annually for “highly qualified foreign workers” was recently dropped from 195,000 to 65,000.

  10. In 2001, (the most recent year for which data are available), U.S. industry spent more on tort litigation and related costs than on research and development.”

Fortunately, although the report was realistically harsh in its evaluation of the problems we now face, a major portion was devoted to specific recommendations as to how to take immediate corrective action. These recommendations are segmented into four sections. The first deals with the K-12 school system; the second addresses America’s research base. The third, higher education; the fourth, provides for incentives for innovation. These will be discussed in next month’s article.


While the above headline might be considered puzzling at best and indecipherable at worst, it is actually an introductory attention grabber to what is intended to be the first of a continuing series of articles. The contents of each column will be multi-faceted in the sense that several subjects will be covered, each in a relatively short manner, dealing with an eclectic group of topics taken from sources such as magazines, newspapers, books, various Internet sites, and wherever else available.

In order to explain the above headline, and to convey the type of contents to be included, here is an example of what can be expected as well as a few other pieces of information that hopefully will be of interest. (Incidentally, where possible, the source of each block of content will be identified in the event you wish to examine the subject matter in more detail.)

JICYMI: The New Age Language

It used to be that kids would converse with friends interminably over the telephone. Well, say hello to the radically different “Information Age” where the preferred communication technique by even prepubescent children is “instant messaging” via the computer. To that end a new and mysterious language form has evolved, one particularly inexplicable to adults, especially parents (and probably deliberately so). This is a language comprised of a series of letters, all seemingly nonsensical, that actually refer to phrases. The letters form what are known as acronyms, initialisms, abbreviations, or contractions that sometimes (but not always) can be pronounced as words. A few commonly used acronyms are laser, NATO, and LED.

The use of acronyms can be traced back to the times of the Roman Empire, Christ, and indeed, the church, that used the inscription INRI over the crucifix, which stands for the Latin, Jesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews). According to www.answers.com, “In the English language, the widespread use of acronyms, initialisms, and contractions is a relatively new linguistic phenomenon, having become most popular in the 20 th and 21 st century.” The Oxford English Dictionary records the first printed use of the word initialism as occurring in 1899; acronym in 1943.”

For those old enough to recall, acronyms were common during the World War II period. Here are a few: SNAFU, FUBAR, SOL, SUBAR. The first cannot be translated in a family newspaper. Polite definitions of the second and third would be Fouled Up Beyond All Repair, and “So” Out of Luck. The third is Screwed Up Beyond All Repair.

There are now numerous web sites that provide lists of acronyms and Internet slang words. As an indication of the popularity and ubiquitous usage of this new communication form, the website www.acronymattic.com contains 3 million acronyms that can be accessed for definition.

As implied above, a number of acronyms have been deliberately devised to perplex parents who, if they are smart, will monitor the use of the Internet by their children very carefully. Here are a few examples: CD9—Parents are around; PAW—Parents are watching; TDTM—Talk dirty to me; BF / GF—Boyfriend/Girlfriend; S2R—Send to receive (pictures). Many are more explicit. The following link is a website every parent of a child using the Internet should access. It is a primer on how to insure a child’s safety titled “Internet Safety For Parents and Teens.”

Headline Definition

Now, back to the headline above, JICYMI (it can be pronounced Jickiemee)and will appear with each month’s article. It is my creation as an acronym for Just In Case You Missed It. “It” being the subject of an article or an issue that probably surfaced in some form since the last posting. If there is nothing of interest, the column will not appear. Here are a few more topics for this inaugural column:

Solar Heats Up
June 10, 2006
The Jerusalem Report (Magazine)

A fascinating and exciting story titled “The Sunshine Boys” describes a revolutionary new system that captures the sun’s energy and turns it into electricity. This is a totally different technology than the traditional silicon photovoltaic solar cells normally associated with the collection of solar energy. A private company, Solel, located in Beit Shemesh, a city about equidistant between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (whose Hebrew name ironically translates into “City of the Sun”), purchased a bankrupt Jerusalem company in the early 1990’s that had developed a way to generate electricity using the heat of the sun.

The technology “employs a solar trough of curved parabolic mirrors to focus and condense the sun to superheat a liquid. ‘It’s an old idea,’ Avi Brenmiller [the CEO of Solel], says, ‘a black plate out in the sun, like the Israeli solar water heater. But that only heats the water up to 40-50 degrees Celsius (104-122F). What we do is focus 6 meters of sun’s rays on 7 cm of target area to heat other fluids up to 400C, and create steam which can run the same turbine used in a coal power plant.’”

Now, with the price of oil and gas escalating (a Goldman Sachs report in March projects oil prices could spike to $105 a barrel), the Solel technology is looking even more desirable. Brenmiller has indicated that by refining the technology, his company has cut the cost of generating energy down to 10-12 cents a kilowatt-hour. That’s only slightly higher than the average 9.86 cent cost of oil and gas generated nationally—and remember, this is totally clean energy,

Solel has completed, or is erecting projects in Spain, Italy, Israel, and the United States. Its latest contract worth an estimated $45 million “is for the construction of seven thermo-solar power stations in California, to be operated by FPL Energy, the largest U.S. supplier of electric power.” Brenmiller is so confident in the technology, he has made the statement, “Give me a square of Negev land about 9 miles long on each side, and I will supply all of Israel’s electric power.” He may yet get the chance. (I keep thinking it’s too bad this is not a public company—I’d bet my money on it.)

The Terrorism Index
July/August 2006
Foreign Policy (magazine)

There has been a mysterious silence relating to a survey published in the above magazine, where the results would normally warrant significant media coverage. The data, disturbingly detrimental to the Bush administration’s policies on its “war on terrorism,” will be looked upon with great suspicion by conservatives because of participation by the Center for America Progress, an unabashedly Liberal oriented organization. On the other hand, Foreign Policy magazine (owned by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) is non-partisan in nature (winning the 2003 National Magazine Award for general excellence). To my knowledge, the only recognition provided to the survey results have been in an article by Bob Herbert, the Liberal columnist in The New York Times, and on National Public Radio.

As described in the opening segment of the survey, these two organizations “teamed up to ask over 100 of America’s most esteemed terrorism and national security experts for their assessment.” The survey purportedly “seeks for the first time to mine the highest echelon of the U.S. national security establishment across the ideological spectrum for their insights on the war on terrorism” Participants numbered a total of 116, with 31 Conservatives, 40 Moderates, and 45 Liberals. Responses were weighted to equalize the disparity in those numbers. As described in the Foreign Policy release, “participants include people who have served as secretary of state, national security advisor, retired top commanders from the U.S. military, seasoned members of the intelligent community, and distinguished academics and journalists. Nearly 80 percent of the index participants have worked in the U.S. government — of these more than half were in the executive branch, one third in the military, and 17 percent in the intelligent community.”

What is astonishing is the degree to which this politically and philosophically diverse group (if you are willing to believe the official statement) agrees on almost every survey question. The survey concludes that a “surprising consensus exists among the experts about terrorism and U.S national security.” For example, 84 percent of the security experts disagree with the administration’s statement that we are winning the war on terror. In fact 71 percent of those who consider themselves Conservatives disagree with the administration’s statement. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is rated at 2.9 out of a possible 10 on its effectiveness in protecting the American people.

Part of the survey included a poll of the American public and particularly striking is the disconnect that pervades the public’s attitudes and beliefs as contrasted to that of the experts. (This project was probably completed in April of this year and opinions might have changed since then — for better or worse is for you to decide.) Asked whether the U.S. is winning the war on terror, 56 percent of the general public said yes, while only 14 percent of the experts agreed. A vast majority, 87 percent, of the experts think the war in Iraq has negatively impacted the war on terror while only 44 percent of the public believes that. While 35 percent of the experts believe we will be hit with a major terrorist attack in 2006, 66 percent of the public thinks that likely. However, more than 80 percent of the experts do believe we are likely to face a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 within the next ten years.

The survey also states that, “specific U.S. policies are cited by the experts as contributing to our lack of progress in winning the war against terrorism networks. Majorities believe that the war in Iraq (87 percent), the detention of terrorist suspects in Guantanamo and elsewhere (81 percent), U.S. policy towards Iran (60 percent), and U.S. energy policy (64 percent), have had a negative impact on our national security.”

As if the above conclusions are insufficient to make the point, the survey continues by maintaining that “Respondents sharply criticized U.S efforts in a number of key areas of national security, including public diplomacy, intelligence, and homeland security. Nearly all departments and agencies responsible for fighting the war on terror received poor marks. The experts also said that recent reforms of the national security apparatus have done little to make America safe.” It is disturbing to note that one of the assumptions at the end of the report emphasizes, “These conclusions about the United States’ performance in the war [on terror] so far are all the more troubling considering that, although Americans appear to be growing tired of the war on terror, the index’s experts appear to believe that the battle has just begun.” That is not an encouraging outlook.

Note: It is assumed that the above article may well be viewed differently by those on each side of the political spectrum. Yet, “it” falls perfectly into the category of “It” as suggested by the headline JICYMI, because in this case especially, with almost no media coverage, you probably did miss “it.” Some, perhaps many, conceivably with good reason, will express suspicions based on the strong presence, and possible pressure of the “Liberal” Center for American Progress. However, on July 10 th, the influential and highly respected Council on Foreign Relations, a non-partisan resource for information and analysis, posted a link to The Center of American Progress website’s coverage of the Terrorism Index, calling it a “must read.” Now that you have the information, you can draw your own conclusions.