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An innovation nation once more

To compete globally, the US workforce needs presidential leadership to bolster math, science, and engineering education.

By Todd L. Pittinsky / September 15, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

America is having one of those slow-motion nightmares where you're back in high school and suddenly you remember you're enrolled in chemistry, economics, and French. The exams are tomorrow but you haven't been to any of the classes, read any of the books, or done any of the homework.

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In our national dream, we're high-tech champions, but we forgot that the other countries are also competing, doing just what we once did to be the most innovative, productive, and competitive. Suddenly, the signs are all over, from Indian tech support to Finnish cellphones to Japanese hybrid cars.

If technology will be one of the drivers of the economic prosperity we want, does the America of subprime mortgages and unaffordable healthcare, high gas prices, and low stock prices, still have what it takes? It feels as if we're slipping ... if only we could wake up.

We were on top for so long that we forgot what kept us there. Our spectacular run of world-beating innovation and productivity was not a result of some peculiarly American superiority. It was based, in part, on out-educating the rest of the world. Widespread, high-quality math, science, and engineering education gave America a workforce that could produce marvels from the Internet to the frozen French fry.

But is our public education still world-class? Cross-national studies suggest it isn't. In a worldwide 2003 study of fourth and eighth graders (the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study), the US fared only slightly above average. In a 2006 multinational study (the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment), the US scored lower than average on math and combined science. Meanwhile, it appears that fewer foreign graduate students trained in these fields on US campuses are applying for US citizenship.

Countries from Ireland to India to China have spent decades doing their homework – investing wholeheartedly in technically educated workforces – while America, still dreaming, seems to have forgotten it signed up for the course.

National somnambulism makes this a national leadership issue. Unfortunately, our presidential candidates seem only vaguely aware of the problem and unaware of the most effective role they could play in solving it. J. Richard Hackman, a leading scholar on organizational behavior, has emphasized that the best leadership consists of creating the conditions for greatness, in part by (a) pointing people in a compelling direction and (b) providing the resources they will need to move in that direction.

By those criteria, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama are demonstrating serious leadership on this issue. They make vague statements and say little about specific problems, specific causes, and specific solutions. They address some problems of the moment (federal research spending, the politicization of federal science agencies), but seem unaware that the sources of the US scientific workforce are starting to dry up. Quickly.