Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Article by John Carey in Business Week

An article by John Carey, Flying High?; Long the innovation leader, the U.S. now has serious competition from abroad. Is America's research lead in danger?, in Business Week (October 11, 2004) is worth a look.

It perhaps does not fully come to grips with the consequences of establishment of research labs by US companies in foreign countries (eg, GE in Bangalore, DuPont in Shanghai, Cummins in Pune). Further, it perhaps does not fully come to grips with the visa issue; there are many U.S.-born scientists who are not being optimally used (remember the comments of Dr. Hale of Hale-Bopp fame?) It is true that US companies need to look globally, but it is also true that the US, as a country, needs to preserve its scientific infrastructure.

Additionally, the comment about leading the world in patents is a close call.


-->With more than 10 million people with degrees in science or engineering, America still leads the world in scientific papers and patents. But other nations are catching up fast. Within a few years, China plans to graduate 350,000 new engineers annually. In contrast, U.S. universities produce less than 100,000 per year. And as many other nations invest heavily in science and technology, the number of papers and patents from researchers in Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore is soaring. The world is increasingly populated with innovators. ``We are at a watershed in the global economy,'' says Denis Fred Simon of Rensselaer Polytechnic University.
Overall, this global innovation explosion ``is a good thing. We want a productive world,'' says C. Paul Robinson, president of Sandia National Laboratories. But it presents new challenges for the U.S. Companies increasingly need to scour the world for ideas. In the future, ``the U.S. can only count on making at most one in five inventions,'' predicts Greg E. Blonder, a former Bell Laboratories scientist who is now a venture capitalist. The good news is that U.S. researchers appear to be rising to this challenge by tapping into overseas talent. The Georgia Institute of Technology, for instance, is working with Bangladesh scientists on monsoon forecasting and is also collaborating with universities and companies across Asia and Europe in fields such as microelectronics and advanced sensors. Says provost Jean-Lou Chameau: ``Nowadays it would be very arrogant to think that we have all of the research expertise concentrated in one area or country.''
Collaboration becomes ever more important as the flow of talent to the U.S. slows. Greater opportunities in countries outside the U.S. mean that fewer foreign-born researchers will be studying, working, and staying in the U.S. The number of visas granted to foreign scientists and engineers has been declining since 2001, aggravated by restrictions imposed to fight terrorism. Because of foreign students' visa troubles, ``there has been a precipitous drop in graduate school applications,'' says James S. Langer, vice-president of the National Academy of Sciences. ``It is having a major effect on science and technology in the U.S.
Bush administration officials stress that the visa problem is not easy to solve. ``Imagine the outcry if we let a terrorist in to study biological methods or physics,'' says C. Stewart Verdery Jr., Assistant Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Policy and Planning at the Homeland Security Dept. Still, he says: ``We agree that if we make it unduly difficult for people to come and work in high tech, we will have done serious damage.''
That's why the Administration is taking action. And there may be reason for optimism on the visa front. A Sept. 7 letter to the scientific community from the State Dept. claims that ``98% of all Visa Mantis cases [which involve a security check designed to protect against sensitive technology transfers] are being cleared in less than 30 days.'' While skeptical scientists are waiting for firm proof, ``we have seen a really big improvement in the rate at which cases are being cleared,'' says Wendy D. White, director of the Board on International Scientific Organizations at the National Academy of Sciences.
No such improvement has come in another area of contention -- stem cell research. Scientists charge that the Administration is stifling work that holds the promise of treating a host of diseases. The White House has prohibited federally funded scientists from freely experimenting with all but a small selection of embryonic stem cells because of opposition from anti-abortion advocates. ``In the U.S., you have this absolutely ridiculous position on federal funding. Most of the best researchers [in publicly funded labs] can't touch these cells while private companies can do anything,'' says Austin Smith, director of Edinburgh University's Institute for Stem Cell Research. But that could change. California voters will soon decide whether to sell billions of dollars in bonds to support research in stem cells.
The fears about inadequate research support and slowing immigration are real. But do they strike at the heart of America's technological might, or are they just niggling worries, overshadowed by an innovation engine that still holds awesome power? The complete answer won't be known for years -- and, of course, will depend on everything from future R&D funding to visa policies. But if past history is any guide, it's unlikely that the U.S. is facing any serious threats to its ability to compete in the world.


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