As if concerns about the rising disparity between the haves and have-nots in the developed countries of the world, and most especially in those countries that led the industrial revolution, the U.K. and the U.S.A., were not enough, now comes a piece by Norm Augustine in Forbes magazine which adds to the anxiety: “America Is Losing Its Edge in Innovation.” Essentially Augustine observes that while we still train much of the world’s scientists and engineers, they are no longer choosing to remain in the U.S.A. and work here. The result is that their application of their knowledge is happening elsewhere. Augustine blames American culture, i.e., parents especially, and educational institutions for not making it clear that science and engineering are great lives to lead. Along the way, he uses some interesting, if not particularly coherent, statistics:
- U.S. consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the U.S. government devotes to energy R&D.
- In 2009, for the first time, over half of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.
- China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s number one high-technology exporter.
- Between 1996 and 1999, 157 new drugs were approved in the U.S. Ten years later, that number had dropped to 74.
- The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. #48 in quality of math and science education.
I’m with you, Mr. Augustine, that we have allowed, I don’t know, bankers and lawyers — and athletes — to become the praetorians of American capitalism, but I don’t think its education’s fault. I think the problem is much more complex and knotted and it’s going to take the kind of serious long-view thinking that there doesn’t seem much interest in embracing at the moment. As a folklorist, I feel like much of my job is to take good notes and try to describe all this as best I can, in hopes of beginning to understand it over the next decade. As a citizen, I’m kind of okay with America “losing its edge,” if by edge we mean domination. I would rather see our fine country decline a bit, retreat from imposition of empire by might, and re-emerge as a world power in ideas and production of things that matter. As a parent, and someone looking at retirement twenty or so years from now, I don’t like that I think it’s exactly during that span of time that my chance to save money for myself and my family is going to be most tested.