Is the U.S. Falling Behind the Technology Curve?

Tim Watkin thinks so (italics mine):

In the half-century following the second world war US universities were magnets for students and academics from around the world. Crucially, many foreign graduate students studying the physical sciences, biological sciences, IT and engineering stayed after graduation. As the Gathering Storm report notes: “Government spending on R&D soared after World War II, and … as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) reached a peak of 1.9% in 1964.” In the last six or seven years, however, that tide has turned. Overseas institutions and companies are increasingly competitive, and federal and state funding for science and engineering has fallen significantly, to just 0.8% of GDP. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are sucking up federal money, with President Bush last week asking Congress to raise the war budget for 2008 to $196bn. That’s quite an opportunity cost….
By one estimate, America produces roughly 75,000 engineers per year. China graduates ten times that number, and India, close to a million. The Gathering Storm report states: ” In South Korea, 38% of all undergraduates receive their degrees in natural science or engineering. In France, the figure is 47%, in China, 50%, and in Singapore, 67%. In the United States, the corresponding figure is 15%.”
If the implications of that aren’t clear enough, I’ll let Intel Corporation spokesman Howard High spell it out for you: “We go where the smart people are. Now our business operations are two-thirds in the US and one-third overseas. But that ratio will flip over the next ten years.”

If that’s not depressing enough, here’s what we still do well:

Where America remains dominant is in venture capital. No one else comes close. But money alone can’t slow successful start-ups in Bangalore or stop South Korea’s broadband penetration leaving American for dead. “We’ve got five years,” Chambers said. Professor Laura Tyson, from UC Berkeley’s Haas Business and Public Policy Group, nodded repeatedly as he spoke. She said America urgently needs to improve the quality of math and science teaching in its public schools and invest more in R&D.

Oh, and we do this well too (italics mine):

….the US is still responsible for 34% of the world’s total R&D spending by both government and industry. That’s the good news for Americans. But for most of the 1990s it was 40%. China and Japan now account for 13% and growing. Kei Koizumi, who watches America’s R&D budgets for the AAAS, told me the 2008 budget, which still needs to be passed by Congress, continues that worrying trend, leaving the federal research portfolio 7.4% below the 2004 level. That’s quite a second term, Mr President. China and South Korea, by contrast, are increasing government research by 10% or more each year.

One interesting note from the AAAS data: the only reason the decline isn’t steeper is America’s increasing support for weapon systems development
.

Decades from now our children and grandchildren are going to despise us for our stupidity. And I wouldn’t blame them.

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10 Responses to Is the U.S. Falling Behind the Technology Curve?

  1. Colst says:

    About the engineers.
    First, I’m not even sure where that million number for India comes from. I’ve read before that the source he seems to be using puts the number around 350,000.
    Second, the statistics on engineers in “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” were debunked almost two years ago by both journalists and academics. A Duke study put the numbers around 138,000 for the US, 352,000 for China, and 112,000 for India.
    http://memp.pratt.duke.edu/downloads/duke_outsourcing_2005.pdf
    Before deciding whether those numbers are troubling or not, they also need to be put in perspective of the countries’ populations.

  2. Colst says:

    Even the National Academies, which were responsible for the earlier numbers, apparently have abandoned them and replaced them with the Duke study’s numbers.
    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/06/13/numbers

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says:

    The buck passes on. The US is only falling back where it was before WW2, i.e. before the European scientists fled there and gave it a temporary boost. Now that global economies have recovered from WW2 and the Cold War, activity in science gets redistributed as well.

  4. Michael Schmidt says:

    I think the percentage undergraduates receiving science and engineering degrees is an especially meaningless statistic. We have a LOT of people in college who wouldn’t get into college in other countries, and most of these students are NOT majoring in sciences or engineering. I’ll bet that the numbers of communications majors we have far outstrips communications majors in India and China combined…if push ever comes to shove, we’ll just outcommunicate our rivals….

  5. Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD says:

    Off-topic – This seems like something that would interest you:
    Bush Goes Godwin

    WASHINGTON – President Bush compared Congress’ Democratic leaders Thursday with people who ignored the rise of Lenin and Hitler early in the last century, saying “the world paid a terrible price” then and risks similar consequences for inaction today.

    I think the comparison would have been more apt for the Republican-led Congress that fueled the Bush cabinet’s “unitard executive” strategy.

  6. Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD says:

    Irony overdose – Bush says:

    History teaches us that underestimating the words of evil, ambitious men is a terrible mistake

  7. NoAstronomer says:

    Decades from now our children and grandchildren are going to despise us for our stupidity.
    Just being a little contrary here. Our society places great emphasis on people being able to choose their path in life. If, in the future, we have lost our technical edge it will be because our children and grandchildren have chosen a different path.

  8. Tex says:

    I’ll bet that the numbers of communications majors we have far outstrips communications majors in India and China combined…

    That pretty much seals our fate right there.

  9. bigTom says:

    But it all makes sense, the war on science makes the vast majority of scientists into liberals, which only increases the incentive to attack science. Add in the war on terror, which has made the US a bureaucratic nightmare
    and a less popular destination for technical foreign students, and you have the perfect storm.

  10. natural cynic says:

    NoAstronomer

    Our society places great emphasis on people being able to choose their path in life. If, in the future, we have lost our technical edge it will be because our children and grandchildren have chosen a different path.

    That isn’t the problem. The problem is how the sciences, math, and engineering are presented to the average college-bound student. The anti-intellectual, science-is-for-nerds zeitgeist in this country is rather appalling. No wonder that science is being rejected by so many.

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