President Obama’s State of the Union address focused heavily on the domestic tech sector, and now we know why — a recent report by the National Science Board (NSB) charted America’s eroding share of the “global scientific landscape,” and its conclusions are troubling. Since 2001, the global R&D performed by Asian countries has overtaken the U.S.
Over the last decade, America’s share of global R&D shrank from 37-30%, while the worldwide R&D performed by Asian countries increased from 25-34%. No surprise — China led the way, with a dramatic surge of just 4% to 15% of all global R&D.
This is disturbing for many reasons, not the least of which is our flailing economy and dwindling global economic competitiveness.
"The first decade of the 21st century continues a dramatic shift in the global scientific landscape," said NSB Chairman Dan Arvizu. "Emerging economies understand the role science and innovation play in the global marketplace and in economic competitiveness and have increasingly placed a priority on building their capacity in science and technology.
The report cited significant investments by China and South Korea in the “science and technology (S&T) research enterprise,” causing China’s high-tech manufacturing industry to rise nearly six-fold between 2003 and 2012 and China’s global share of the sector to leap from a paltry 8% to a robust 24%.
And why is Asia soaring while the U.S. is in a tailspin?
The Great Recession — of which we haven’t fully recovered — plays a part, as U.S. R&D expenditures declined in 2009, though the report credits the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (i.e., the largest government expenditure since World War II) with a temporary boost in R&D funding.
The NSB also points to China’s burgeoning “clean energy” sector — China invested $61 billion, while the U.S. spent a mere $29 billion. But how much does clean energy really benefit the national economy?
For every Hamwheel Electric success story, there’s five very public, very expensive Solyndras (investment: $535 million). For every Heron Wind triumph, there’s First Solar ($1.46 billion), SunPower ($1.2 billion), Brightsource ($1.6 billion), and countless more.
In his SOTU address, Obama declared, unequivocally, “Climate change is a fact,” and his administration has touted Cap and Trade schemes that necessarily taxes industry — for better or worse — in the interest of reducing our carbon pollution.
No, our global scientific leadership failures are a direct result of our nation’s dwindling STEM education initiatives. It’s a fact that the U.S. doesn’t prioritize mathematics and the sciences. As I mentioned in a recent piece, “Why the U.S. sucks at math,” a recent survey delivered some sobering news: U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 25th out of 34 developed countries in mathematics. A nonprofit graduate school in child development noted that 21% of Chicago preschool and kindergarten teachers taught math every day, while 96% taught language arts.
My conclusion was as follows: Why does the U.S. suck at math? Simple — we don’t teach it.
Reading comprehension is a crucial skill for success in life, and many educated adults can’t string a coherent sentence together (without using LOLspeak or made-up acronyms). But we’re clearly emphasizing the liberal arts at the expense of STEM comprehension. Many students — who may show an inclination toward science and technology — aren’t receiving the proper reinforcement or encouragement.
And that’s where our country’s scientific failures start — at the ground level, with pliable young minds. And unless we prioritize STEM in early childhood education, we’ll continue being spectators — instead of leaders — in the global scientific landscape.