Technology will be fine, it is assumed. Like gifted students who find their school programs cut, the belief is that American technology will be find a way to be dominant.
But we can see that lead is slipping fast. The most recent National Science Board report shows that globalization is happening in science and technology and we need to make some adjustments in order not to lose our leadership. In 2001, the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, accounted for 37 percent of its research. Today that is down to 30 percent. Meanwhile, Asia has grown from 25 percent to 34 percent.
Image link: McParland Finn Ltd.
We need to make three changes in policy and culture to insure that American science and technology stays ahead of determined global competition.
1) Stop the culture war on corporate science and technology. In the last decade, we have spent billions of dollars trying to convince young people that they need to go into academic science. Post-Doc salaries in academia have plummeted and positions are scarce because there are only enough jobs to employ 16 percent of the graduates who want to remain in academia each year. Meanwhile, corporations are starving for talent and believe we need to encourage even more young people to go into STEM fields. We don't, there are plenty, but we are spending tax dollars convincing them they need to compete for government grants rather than building the America of the future.
2) Stop training foreign PhDs and sending them home. Visas for foreign students who want to get an education in America are easy to obtain. But once a foreign citizen gets a PhD here, they face a Byzantine mess while trying to land a job. Faced with the difficult task of finding a company willing to deal with the government and obtain a work visa for them, they are forced to return home when they would rather remain here. Since the 1990s, when the current protectionist work visa rules went into effect, we have trained an entire generation of scientists and engineers and forced them to return home, where they now compete with America. And they have quite adeptly started closing the gap, as the new results show. But government is ignoring the real problem and just using this as an excuse to ask for more money.
Contrary to marketing claims by advocates for STEM, we don't need to turn more Americans into scientists, we can simply turn more scientists into Americans.
3) We care more about taxes than research. China's high-tech manufacturing industry showed a nearly six-fold increase between 2003 and 2012, and its global share of high-tech manufacturing went from 8 to 24 percent. It's fine to let Chinese labor build cheap iPads, as long as the technology is developed here. But only 80 percent of our technology development is now done here, a lower amount than ever. India and Brazil and other countries are encouraging American multinationals to invest with them for new high-tech workers because they know that science and technology means high-paying jobs but also residual benefits, like intellectual and cultural hubs. Jobs bring jobs, that is what made Silicon Valley great.
Instead, we care more about finding new ways to tax corporations with money overseas than we care about keeping jobs here.
There's no reason to panic, the economic malaise has led to a decrease in Federal government R&D funding but that does not mean we are doomed because corporate science has always filled the gap. Historically, the private sector has always dominated science and technology and that is still true today but corporations are also happy to let 330 million shareholders assume the risk, so if government will do something, corporations will let it. But if government does not do something, science does not end - anyone claiming it does is selling you something.
The U.S. still spends twice as much on R&D as the country in second place, China. Companies are just spending far less in America than they would be if we fostered STEM jobs domestically the way we all claim we should.
To fix it, we simply need to stop treating American research and development like it is the problem rather than the solution.