Our Scientific Edge (Another Take)
Time magazine's cover story this week builds on the math news from the Business Roundtable last week, with a title "Are We Losing Our Edge?"
The gist is that Americans still produce the most peer-reviewed articles, the most innovation, and still have one of the highest productivity growth rates in the world. But bright young people who come to the US for college and graduate school are often entertaining offers to return to their home countries afterwards. And with amazing institutions like the various Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) cranking out top engineers, many such young people aren't even coming to the US at all. And that's before we get to the subject of the declining number of science and engineering PhDs going to American citizens... and the bad state of science and math education in our primary and secondary schools...
It's a complex topic, which is why throwing our hands up in the air isn't entirely warranted. For starters, geographic boundaries mean less these days. An Indian engineer might work in India for an American company -- does that mean America is losing its edge? Not really, and not any more than an American working in America for a pharmaceutical company headquartered in London means things have gone horribly awry.
Also, people move more. I have interviewed a number of Chinese graduate students in the US. Many would like to stay; others would like the ability to move back and forth. Few go back to China for long periods of time without obtaining US citizenship. It's still a helpful passport to have, given the uncertainties of the Chinese political situation, or the possibility of social unrest in India, Russia and other countries that send top-notch students to the US. Occasionally, there's even a touch of xenophobia in these arguments about America's scientific "edge." People who don't even understand the concept of statistical significance look at US grad schools, see a lot of Asian faces, and say "we're" losing our edge. As if many of these young people won't become "us." For that reason, Charles Krauthammer has an essay in Time saying "Don't Believe the Hype. We're Still No. 1." Google was founded by a Russian, he points out, Yahoo by a Taiwanese, etc.
I agree with Krauthammer that the opportunities in the US -- to get rich, to build a company with little government interference, to fail and then move and start over again -- are still attractive to many of the best and brightest around the world. But he brushes over the very serious problem of American students not receiving a vigorous enough education.
Ideally, America would be bringing in the best and brightest from other countries and cranking out more folks from American schools capable of doing innovative work. This isn't just a matter of standards, as most of the policies put on the table seem to indicate. Sure, it would be great if all students got a more rigorous math and science education.
But it's the top 1% of US students who will really be competing in the innovation category with their peers from around the world. Some states have recognized this and created residential math and science high schools for their top performers. These schools offer more in-depth labs and accelerated classwork (often in conjunction with state universities). That's the good news.
The bad news is that fewer than 20 states have such schools. If America really wants to push the envelope in science, creating such schools in every state would be a bold first step.