Storm Warnings for America's Competitiveness

10/01/2010 09:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James M. Gentile Dean for the Natural & Applied Sciences, Hope College, Holland, MI

Five years ago, a landmark report called Rising above the Gathering Storm warned about the United States' ability to prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy. Produced by a joint committee of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, it sounded an alarm that reverberated widely. Now the same organizations have issued a reassessment that reveals an even worse picture today, prompting the National Academies to title their latest document Rising above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5.

This latest report illuminates our nation's accelerating decay in the areas of basic scientific research and science education, two key engines of the very innovation that the report maintains is a primary driver of our economic future.

While scientists and engineers make up only four percent of the U.S. workforce, "this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent," the National Science Board has observed. The Gathering Storm committee cited studies by Nobel laureate Robert Solow indicating that "well over half of the growth in U.S. output per hour during the first half of the 20th century could be attributed to advancements in knowledge, particularly technology."

Approaching Category 5's authors conclude that "the nation's competitive outlook has worsened since 2005, when Gathering Storm issued its call to strengthen K-12 education and double the federal budget for basic research. While progress has been made in certain areas, the latitude to fix the problems being confronted has been severely diminished by the economic recession and growth of the national debt over this period from $8 trillion to $13 trillion." Moreover, the authors observe, "other nations have been markedly progressing, thereby affecting America's relative ability to compete for new factories, research laboratories and jobs."

There has been some positive news on this front in the last few days. President Obama announced on September 27th a new goal of recruiting 10,000 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers over the next two years. "This announcement will move the country forward on the Obama Administration's ambitious goal of preparing 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade," the Associated Press reported.

However, if, as the AP says, President Obama has made improving STEM education in America's 14,000 school districts one of his "top priorities," the United States has a long way to go. As Approaching Category 5 points out:

• Sixty-nine percent of U.S. public school students in fifth through eighth grade are taught mathematics by a teacher without a degree or certificate in mathematics.
• Ninety-three percent of U.S. public school students in fifth through eighth grade are taught the physical sciences by a teacher without a degree or certificate in the physical sciences.
• The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th in quality of mathematics and science education.
• The United States ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.
• In 2000, the number of foreign students studying the physical sciences and engineering in U.S. graduate schools for the first time surpassed the number of U.S. students.
• China's Tsinghua and Peking universities are the two largest suppliers of students who receive Ph.D.s - in the United States.

Meanwhile, U.S. competitive capacity is slipping:

• In 2001, 51 percent of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.
• Between 1996 and 1999, 157 new drugs were approved in the United States. In a corresponding period a decade later, the number dropped to 74.
• China has replaced the United States as the world's No. 1 high-tech exporter and is now second in the world in publication of biomedical research articles.
• Almost one-third of U.S.-based manufacturers responding to a recent survey say they are suffering from skills shortages.
• U.S. firms spend twice as much on litigation as on research.

Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist, recently pointed out that China has at least four big, "multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing" initiatives in the works: "building a network of ultramodern airports; building a web of high-speed trains connecting major cities; a third is in bioscience, where the Beijing Genomics Institute this year ordered 128 DNA sequencers -- from America...; and, finally, Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country's leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry."

Friedman calls these technologically advanced projects "moonshots" and points out that America's only big "moonshot" these days seems to be "fixing Afghanistan."

The authors of Approaching Category 5 maintain that one small step in the process of turning this situation around would be for Congress to reauthorize and refund the America COMPETES Act, which is set to expire this year. Passed in 2007 and unfunded until the Obama stimulus package was created in 2009, America COMPETES increased federal funding for K-12 education, provided scholarships for math and science teachers, and funded the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

Far more than that is needed in response to these Storm warnings. The future of our economic competitiveness and, therefore, our way of life is at stake.

James M. Gentile is President & CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest private foundation, and the first dedicated wholly to science.