3 Ways To Keep America Dominant In Science And Technology
    By Hank Campbell | February 12th 2014 04:00 AM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Research and Development (R&D) has become something of a dirty word throughout a giant swath of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) community. Academia is where it's at, the saying goes, and basic research, learning for the sake of learning with no defined public benefit, is what scientists are told they must do if they want to be real scientists.

    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

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    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.


    I am a firm believer in basic science - or science driven by curiosity rather than utility. I think it is unfortunate that basic science is measured against applied science as if we need to choose between the two. In fact both segments of science is equally important.
    I do support strengthening of US R&D and do not see why your nation should loose the race with respect to the speeding new economies like China - or any of the other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China).

    So, Go USA! :-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    I certainly agree and I have to blame a fiscal conservative, the Republican president Ronald Reagan, for our recent obsession with basic research. He loved it, he threw a lot of money at it, and the most interesting basic research led to a lot of discoveries, even if by accident - but now those accidents have become the justification for unlimited government money going into academia and the political maneuvering that goes with it.

    The NIH budget doubled under another supposed conservative George Bush, but we didn't get twice as much societal benefit from it.

    Oddly, many modern academics would regard both Bush and Reagan as being anti-science because they are Republican - but when funding counts, and anything less than funding is not really supporting science, it is just pretty words - Republicans love science a lot more than Democrats.
    As far as I can tell, it is more the structure around science, rather than science itself you have to look to to better benefit from your investments, be it basic or applied science. 
    R&D are closely related to economic growth and therefore it should not be surprising that the conservative side is in favor of it - and will invest.

    But, again, I do not believe it is the level of investment that is the problem, it is more organization, structure, legislation etc that determines your ability to reap be benefits.

    Perhaps it is a parallel to the case of Norway and say The Democratic Republic of Kongo, both have equal abundance of natural resources, but the structure and organization and management of these resources are fundamentally different, resulting in Norway being one of the richest countries in the world, and DRK is placed on the other end of the scale. 
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth