Sunday, March 02, 2008

How to become a second rate nation

The industrial base is leaving the continental US for foreign countries, this is caused by two features conspiring to take our industrial might away. The first is a lower cost labor market, the second is far more insidious and will lead to our country becoming a second rate nation. This second facet is the decline in a technical and scientifically educated workforce. The following excerpt from an article by Robert Lucky describes the nature of this decline.

To paraphrase; The basis of innovation and power in today's world are mathematics and the sciences. They are the engines that have driven the accomplishments of the last 70 years. Without this basis, most of the developments from medicine to Global Positioning(GPS) and yes even the requisite cell phone that arose from this elementary foundation would not exist. When this intellectual commodity disappears from our country the slack will be picked up by other countries that are developing their foundations.
So the question arises what can we do as a nation to reverse this trend and continue to innovate? The answer lies hidden in what is going on in the educational system. And what is there is particularly discouraging. In the past two decades (20 years), the numbers of engineers, mathematicians, physical scientists and geoscientists graduating with bachelors degrees has declined by 18%. As a proportion of the number of graduating college students, the decline is even worse...40%. The numbers of engineering doctorates awarded by US universities has dropped by 23% in the past 10 years.
On the other hand, US universities have increased the production of lawyers by 20%.

Only 15% of US students have the necessary mathematical background to even consider engineering as a career. Although any number of studies demonstrate that society gains substantial returns for it's investments in research, it is doubtful that these returns can be captured within the time frame demanded by investor's expectations. As a result, industry now spends three (3) times as much on litigation as it does on research. As an indicator of this debilitating trend, look to the elementary education system and note the course of studies that make up the curricula are substantially devoid of these foundation building blocks. Look at the media exposure, with anything scientific vilified (the evil scientist) and litigation (the elegant lawyer/prosecutor) glorified. The trends are bad and look to be irreversible as the pool of technical types shrinks and the public remains apathetic. The significant scientific breakthroughs of the future are going to be found offshore for there won't be anyone here to provide them.

The apathy of the general public causes much of the problems being faced by American industry. They are far more concerned with how the local football team is doing, notice the large investments in athletic programs, while the push for academics other than "social" courses take second place. Should we ever have to fight another major war similar to WWII, just where would we get the industrial base to take on such an enterprise? Without factories, equipment is not built at the rate that wars consume them. We won WWII for two reasons, the mainland was never under attack and we had the industrial base to overwhelm the enemy. It is sad to say, the glory of the United States may be on the wain and our power has peaked, primarily because the nation as a whole has lost it's will compete. Instead of getting our national act together, we have groups that insist that we build barriers and living behind trade restricting walls. Simple put, industrial output was the keystone of the last century, we now have to deal with the current century and look to where the commercial power will be. I know one thing for certain, the commercial power will not reside with the law-based community because it is not exportable and never creates marketable product.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fruitful creative spark that has signified scientific and engineering advances in this country has also been dampened by governmental and political forces. I have been a professional engineer since 1976, and even in that time stretch, I have seen government step in and dictate manner and method of engineering design approach and methodology. Gone are the days when we engineers truly solved problems by the application of science (and with slide rules LOL). Now everything is designed according to cookbook recipes per the government's view of how things should be. Here is the computer - put your problem in and out spits the one size fits all solution, never mind the techincal expertise needed to understand the results and judge if they are appropriate given the circumstances. The second major obstacle to scientific and engineering growth in this country is the anti-science attitude of so called faith based initiatives. It is utter nonsense to prevent scientific and therefore social advancement based on some religious view. Your points on education are also well taken. I once let go a 4-year college educated civil engineer who did not know that slope is rise over run. How pathetic the practicioners of my field have become much less the overall direction that this country is headed.

5:27 PM  
Blogger retiredphysicist said...

I agree with your statements and would add another category. Currently, MBAs are not my favorite people because they are focused on immediate financial gratification, To this species, if bottom line rewards aren't present in the current fiscal quarter or at worst in the second fiscal quarter then scrap the idea. It doesn't matter that the idea will open up a whole new technology, if it takes years to develop then turn it over to a university or forget it. No wonder other nations can eat our lunches and then come here and sell into a vacuum.

5:54 PM  

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