December 04, 2004

The Science Lag

Last night Tom Ashbrook had an interesting program on "America's Lag in the Sciences." The theme was that the United States is not training enough American scientists and engineers.

This is from one of Tom's guests, Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, who is currently the president of Cal Tech:

In the last 20 years, many of the students in American universities who majored in the sciences and engineering came from Asia. Today, significant numbers are staying in Asia because the schooling there is so improved, and because we have made it harder to study here. And Asian scientists who have been successful here are returning home. None of this is lost on the governments of, say, India and China, which are putting huge sums into modernizing their science infrastructure and universities.

The implication seems to be that the U.S. is taking the first steps on the road to financial ruin (Baltimore begins his article by asking: " The United States is the richest nation on Earth, the world's biggest beneficiary of the global economy. But will it last?"), but the connection between basic science and economic development is not linear. Physical, legal, and market infrastructure must combine to create an environment in which science can develop into economic benefit. These other countries have begun to develop the institutions necessary to thrive, but they are still at the beginning of the journey.

Nor is it clear that having scientific innovation distributed among other nations, including India and China, is a bad thing for the United States. As they develop, we will lose some battles, but we are winning a much larger war. I operate on the assumption that a prosperous world is good the the U.S. In my view, Baltimore's argument comes from the opposite -- and in my opinion -- antiquated view that the U.S. must dominate science. This argument comes from the same fount as the anti-outsourcing arguments, and at base the argument is not only jingoistic, but misguided.

Posted by Gordon at December 4, 2004 11:31 AM | TrackBack