Thursday, January 31, 2008

Science, technology, and American competitiveness

Tom Friedman, NY Times columnist, gets it.

Craig Barrett, Chairman of Intel Corp. gets it.

Gov. Janet Napolitano gets it.

Read Friedman's "The World is Flat," Barrett's op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle or Gov. Napolitano's "Innovation America" plan published by the National Governor's Association.

What they get is that American leadership - economic and political - is waning, due in large part to our falling behind in science and technology. The key to turning around America's fortunes lies in making long-term investment in our R&D capabilities.

Fareed Zakaria, columnist and international editor for Newsweek, this week writes,

"To put it more bluntly: the United States is in the beginning of a period of relative decline. It may not be steep or dramatic, but the fact that it's happening is clear. Even if one assumes a slowdown, the other big economies will still grow at two and three times the pace of the West. Over time they will take up a larger share of the global economy—and the United States and Western Europe will have thinner slices. This is not defeatism, it's math."

Barrett's piece is equally strongly worded. He concludes that, "The only way we can hope to compete is with brains and ideas that set us above the competition - and that only comes from investments in education and R&D. Practically everyone who has traveled outside the United States in the last decade has seen this dynamic at work. The only place where it is apparently still a deep, dark secret is in Washington, D.C."

Historically, as much as 85% of growth in US per capita income is from technology advances. In the last decade however, we have seen consumption in this country exceed GDP growth by about $600 billion a year, according to the lead story in Business Week by Michael Mandel. This essentially amounts to $3 trillion more being spent since 2001 than we earn
ed. We did it apparently by borrowing on the equity in our rapidly rising home values.

Now with the subprime debacle and housing prices flat or dropping, we cannot expect to maintain the artificially high growth of recent years.

Congress is rushing to approve a stimulus package of $120-160 billion, plus or minus. The intent is to put more money in people's hand to continue consumer spending. Economists say this is the fastest way to prime the economy and that sounds like a valid solution, for the short term.

But it is only a stop-gap measure. Once everyone spends their $600 checks, what do we do next? Everyone agrees that long term investment in science and technology is the answer.

Last year Congress passed, with great bipartisanship, the America Competes Act,
an outgrowth of recommendations from a seminal report published by the National Academy of Science in 2005, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." But in response to President Bush's veto of funding bills, Congress cut about $22 billion from the 11 appropriation bills to satisfy the President's requested budget level and the omnibus became law. As Craig Barrett laments, funding was stripped for the America Competes Act.

One of the things scientists and educators are doing to change the dynamics is engage the public more about the critical role of science and technology in society. I've been involved in helping set up the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), whose goal is that,

Americans will be empowered to appreciate the pragmatic outcomes of science, to distinguish science from non-science, and to participate in social discourse that provides insight into the nature of science.

COPUS is networking hundreds of thousands of scientists, educators, and others in the scientific enterprise to share best practices and resources in connecting with the public and mobilizing them. As Craig Barrett concluded, "I genuinely think the citizenry of this country wants the United States to compete. If only our elected leaders weren't holding us back."

No comments:

Post a Comment