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.


At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi bob i remember when lbj allowed the koreans to come to america...carte blanche and i always thought the reason was a work ethic (which america was loosing) and their attitude towards learning.
perhaps part of the answer is giving indians and chinese a pass to come to america. we allow hispanics to come to do the work that gringos will not do.


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