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Building the economic staircase

The following opinion piece was originally published in the Washington Times on April 24.

The US economy has taken a sudden tumble, as if it tripped over a bunch of bad headlines and fell down the stairs. The question of the hour: Can it get back on its feet? And if so, how?

We believe the answer is clearly yes, and that our economy will pull itself up again with the powerful muscle of American innovation. But renewed prosperity will happen only if we invest today in tomorrow's innovation.

It takes scientists, engineers and students to generate the new ideas. It takes the capital markets and industries to translate these ideas into products and services in the marketplace. It takes federal and state governments to adopt and implement enabling policies and provide the necessary financial support.

This winning combination has served our nation well. Fully half of the growth of the US economy in the last 50 years has been due to technological innovation.

Tomorrow's economic strength will spring almost entirely from the technologies emerging from our laboratories today. Biotechnology has already led to new ways of understanding and treating a host of diseases, and to an entire new industry. Nanotechnology, our dazzling new ability to design and build with individual atoms or molecules, will emerge as a major driver of economic growth. We anticipate materials far stronger than steel but with just 10 percent of its weight, and electronic devices with a thousandfold increase in computing power but that consume a tiny fraction of the energy in today's devices.

But the plain truth is that as a nation, we are not doing all we must to ensure our future strength in innovation. Federal spending on research and development as a share of the nation's GDP is lower now than it was 15 years ago. In recent years, the number of engineers graduating from our universities has decreased by more than 20 percent. And more than half the doctoral candidates in math and the physical sciences in this country's universities are from abroad, with an increasing number returning home upon completing their studies.

If America is to have a bright future, we need to lay the necessary groundwork today.

First, we need to invest more in research across the board. US investment in broad-based fundamental research which takes place largely in our universities is slowing overall, while other nations are increasing their R&D commitments.

The new administration has made a significant commitment to research in health care and the life sciences, and that's good, but it's like giving shoes to only one of the champion runners in a relay race. Our federal investments are now dangerously lopsided. Today, for every dollar we invest in life science research, we invest only about 50 cents in the physical sciences, engineering and related fields combined.

That unbalanced investment represents a serious strategic error in an era marked by the growing interdependence of all the traditional scientific and technical disciplines, when the most interesting ideas are emerging at the surprising overlaps and intersections between previously unrelated fields.

Second, we need to improve our K-12 education system. America's technology-driven economy demands that our educational institutions supply the innovative thinkers who create new industries and provide the workers who will fill the ever more demanding jobs those new industries generate. We are far behind other countries in tests of student achievement in math and science, outpaced by such countries as Singapore, Japan, Australia, Hungary, England and Canada. Our high schools must not, by default, deny students the opportunity to pursue careers in these fields.

Third, we need to attract more of our citizens, especially minorities and women, into careers in science, mathematics and engineering. As a nation, we cannot prosper without drawing on the talents of this large segment of our population. Only about 5 percent of the 24-year-olds in this country have earned degrees in the natural sciences or engineering. By that measure, we now trail Japan, Korea and the United Kingdom. A decade ago, we were leading.

Our colleges and universities must make scientific and engineering education more attractive and accessible to bright young men and women, and our workplaces must provide the incentive and the opportunity to make the most of that talent.

The bottom line is this: It is not what we already know but what we don't yet know that will make the difference to our future and our children's future. We can vault back up the staircase of economic success but we must start by rebuilding its steps: research and education. The result will be the priceless foundation of the next innovation-based economy.

Norman R. Augustine is the retired former chairman and CEO of the Lockheed Martin Corp.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 16, 2001.

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