Friday, October 14, 2005

Reaching Science and Technological Parity, going the Wrong Direction

This week, China launched two 'Tyconauts' on their first fully orbital flight.

Of course, this is a feat that the United States achieved more than forty years ago, so no need to worry about being overtaken by the Chinese Space Program, right?

Well, actually not so right.

China (as well as India, South Korea and the EU) have invested quite a bit of money and energy into their scientific and technological sectors.

Last week at a conference I attended, I learned that China is right now producing 800,000 engineers per year. The United States produces just about 100,000. True, China has three times our population, but even if one assumes that means they need three times as many engineers, they are still producing them over two and a half times as fast as we would be if we had their population. A new university with about 50,000 students is being opened in China an average of every two weeks. And unlike in past years, when many of their best and brightest came here to study and sometimes stayed here, they are now staying home.

Last year, we got a little bit of a hint when there was a production problem that limited the supply of flu vaccines. The production problem occurred at a factory in England, because most of our vaccines are produced outside of the United States. Especially in the biological sciences, we have not only achieved parity on the way down, but fallen behind many other nations.

There are a number of reasons for this. One of them is that we seem ideologically restrained in biology. For example, we cut off federal funding for research into cloning of human embryos, a potential source of cures for many diseases, so researchers at the University of Seoul got there first. We limited research on stem cells, a related technology, so the focus of research shifted to Europe, where even American pharmaceutical companies have begun investing in labs where the government is more interested in funding research than in limiting it.

This leads to a second reason. Funding. Our school districts and universities are always having to waste a great deal of energy fighting over a limited pie of funding (a pie that has decreased significantly with the Federal and in many cases state tax cuts that reduced what was spent on them). If half the effort that was devoted to lobbying for funds to conduct research was actually used in the research it was pried out of Congress and legislatures for, we wouldn't be falling behind. And our private corporations know it, when they invest more and more in foreign research institutions instead of American universities. What cutting edge research we still have, is largely being done in California, where the voters last year had more foresight than the Federal government and voted to spend their own tax money to fund stem cell research. Even high schools in many of these countries prepare students to conduct research at the highest levels, while we are still mired in a debate about teaching evolution in the biology classroom (a debate settled for over fifty years in Europe, Japan and the rest of the industrialized world).

Of course in some areas, we are still the unquestioned leader (largely thanks to government funding), especially those with military applications. But even there, our shortage of incoming talent is sooner or later going to have an impact when we can't keep up with better trained people in other countries (imagine what would happen to our lead if China devoted the efforts of even half of those 800,000 engineers per year to militaristic purposes. It's not a pretty picture).

America has been blessed for much of our history. But our failure to invest in and promote science education is likely to bring an end to that blessing, sooner or later.

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