Jan. 20 2011 - 7:52 pm | 95,797 views | 1 recommendation | 66 comments
posted by ERIC SAVITZ
Written By Norm Augustine
Norm Augustine: We're falling behind.
I’ve visited more than 100 countries in the past several years, meeting people from all walks of life, from impoverished children in India to heads of state. Almost every adult I’ve talked with in these countries shares a belief that the path to success is paved with science and engineering.
In fact, scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They’re not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S., but rather as society’s leaders and innovators. In China, eight of the top nine political posts are held by engineers. In the U.S., almost no engineers or scientists are engaged in high-level politics, and there is a virtual absence of engineers in our public policy debates.
Why does this matter? Because if American students have a negative impression – or no impression at all – of science and engineering, then they’re hardly likely to choose them as professions. Already, 70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born. Increasingly, these talented individuals are not staying in the U.S – instead, they’re returning home, where they find greater opportunities.
Part of the problem is the lack of priority U.S. parents place on core education. But there are also problems inherent in our public education system. We simply don’t have enough qualified math and science teachers. Many of those teaching math and science have never taken a university-level course in those subjects.
I’ve always wanted to be a teacher; in fact, I took early retirement from my job in the aerospace industry to pursue a career in education. But I was deemed unqualified to teach 8th-grade math in any school in my state. Ironically, I was welcomed to the faculty at Princeton University, where the student newspaper ranked my course as one of 10 that every undergraduate should take.
In a global, knowledge-driven economy there is a direct correlation between engineering education and innovation. Our success or failure as a nation will be measured by how well we do with the innovation agenda, and by how well we can advance medical research, create game-changing devices and improve the world.
I continue to be active in organizations like the IEEE to help raise the profile of the engineering community and ensure that our voice is heard in key public policy decisions. That’s also why I am passionate about the way engineering should be taught as a profession – not as a collection of technical knowledge, but as a diverse educational experience that produces broad thinkers who appreciate the critical links between technology and society.
Here we are in a flattening world, where innovation is the key to success, and we are failing to give our young people the tools they need to compete. Many countries are doing a much better job. Ireland, despite a devastated economy, just announced it will increase spending on basic research. Russia is building an “innovation city” outside of Moscow. Saudi Arabia has a new university for science and engineering with a staggering $10 billion endowment. (It took MIT 142 years to reach that level.) China is creating new technology universities literally by the dozens.
These nations and many others have rightly concluded that the way to win in the world economy is by doing a better job of educating and innovating. And America? We’re losing our edge. Innovation is something we’ve always been good at. Until now, we’ve been the undisputed leaders when it comes to finding new ideas through basic research, translating those ideas into products through world-class engineering, and getting to market first through aggressive entrepreneurship.
That’s how we rose to prominence. And that’s where we’re falling behind now. The statistics tell the story.
U.S. consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the U.S. government devotes to energy R&D. In 2009, for the first time, over half of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies. China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s number one high-technology exporter.
Between 1996 and 1999, 157 new drugs were approved in the U.S. Ten years later, that number had dropped to 74. The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. #48 in quality of math and science education. Innovation is the key to survival in an increasingly global economy. Today we’re living off the investments we made over the past 25 years. We’ve been eating our seed corn. And we’re seeing an accelerating erosion of our ability to compete. Charles Darwin observed that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.
Right now the U.S. is not responding to change as we need to. But there is a way forward. Five years ago, I was part of a commission that studied U.S. competitiveness. We issued a report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which made some important recommendations and specific actions to implement them. The recommendations were:
Improve K-12 science and math education. Invest in long-term basic research.
Attract and retain the best and brightest students, scientists and engineers in the U.S. and around the world. Create and sustain incentives for innovation and research investment.
Our report was received positively and enjoyed tremendous political support. I felt confident that we were finally getting back on the right track.
In 2007, Congress passed the America COMPETES Act, which authorized official support for many of the steps urged in the Gathering Storm report. When the stimulus package was passed early in 2009, most of the COMPETES Act’s measures received funding. There was an increase in total federal funding for K-12 education, the creation of scholarships for future math and science teachers, and financial support to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a new agency dedicated to high-risk, high-reward energy research.
Since the completion of our study five years ago, however, 6 million more kids have dropped out of high school in this country. What kind of future will they have? Likely not a promising one. It is quite possible that our nation’s adults will, for the first time in U.S. history, leave their children and grandchildren a lower standard of living than they themselves enjoyed.
Global leadership is not a birthright. Despite what many Americans believe, our nation does not possess an innate knack for greatness. Greatness must be worked for and won by each new generation. Right now that is not happening. But we still have time. If we place the emphasis we should on education, research and innovation we can lead the world in the decades to come. But the only way to ensure we remain great tomorrow is to increase our investment in science and engineering today.
Norm Augustine is an IEEE Life Fellow and retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin.