Let's have a presidential debate on innovation!
December 17, 2007
Could we have a national discussion on innovation? I don't think that I can stand 11 more months of harping on the same old topics by the US presidential candidates. If they want to talk about something constructive - something that will have long term political, social and economic impact for our nation and our children - let's turn the discussion to the imperative for more innovation.
If the candidates need to brush up on the subject, I would recommend that they read John Kao's book Innovation Nation. I also recommend it to readers of OnTheEdgeBlog. Dr. Kao has blended research and experience to confirm what many of us intuitively believe, that the US is in jeopardy of loosing its prosperity and security due to our complacency with regard to innovation of all kinds, especially in science and technology.
The statistics are alarming. According to the National Science Foundation, foreign-born workers represent 40% of the PhD holders in science and engineering. Foreigners represent half of all engineering graduate students and 40% of those in physical sciences. Like it or not, foreign-born engineers and scientists have been the underpinning of our technological capabilities at least since WW2, but foreign students are coming to the US with less frequency than in the past and returning to their native countries in much higher numbers. Both foreign and US born scientists and engineers are being actively and successfully recruited to places like Singapore, Bangalore and Ireland, just as we once recruited those who fathered our space and nuclear programs.
If we aren't valuing science and engineering at the PhD level, we also won't (and don't) value technology at the levels needed to conceive, design, build, operate and maintain advanced manufacturing and packaging operations. Total engineering degrees awarded are down 20% in the US. During Pack Expo, a leading robot manufacturer opined that robot sales in the USA suffered because of our lack of engineers in corporate management.
I believe that we are off-shoring manufacturing for that same reason. People don't want plans, reports or responsibility for things that they don't understand. Since our executive wings are becoming devoid of technical knowledge, it is just easier to assume that anyone can make the product and ship the responsibility for manufacturing technology to some place like China, India or Mexico. What a mistake!
Last week the news media picked up on the tri-annual report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the scientific readiness of 15 year olds from around the world. Continuing our slide, the USA ranked 29th in science world-wide and 25th in Math out of 30 industrialized nations.
When comparing both scientific performance and socio-economic learning equities, the US shares a failing quadrant with Slovak Republic, Lithuania, Portugal and Greece. The leaders in this analysis include Finland, Hong Kong, Canada, Japan, Estonia, Australia, Korea, Taipei, Macao, Ireland and Sweden.
According to the study, the US's rank as second in education spending per student doesn't seem to matter nearly as much to successful outcomes as do teacher selection and the use of standard's based external testing in the schools. The presidential candidates could have a lively debate on this!
We may be tempted to make the excuse that our competitive advantage is in computer science, not in engineering. Before we fall into that trap, consider that the 2006 ACM International Programming Competition had only one US team from MIT among the top 38 university finishers and the 2007 competition netted 2 US teams among the top 25.
We don't make science and technology sexy like it is in Singapore. Our kids think that hedge fund management and investment banking are sexy occupations - after all, the Forbes list has shown us how rich these guys are. In the long run, an economy can't sustain itself by transferring wealth, we need to create it, and that takes technology. I truly doubt that history will show the ages of civilization to be the agricultural age, the industrial age, the computer age and the investment banking age.
In other countries of the world, innovation is becoming a guiding force in public policy. Students value technology and work hard at learning it. Many countries are surpassing us in their educational and communications infrastructures. They are actively engaged in their 21st century versions of the Manhattan project and the Apollo program.
In the new world empowered by communications and collaboration, one thing that the US has going for itself is a long-standing culture of openness that could be the key to our successful recovery as a nation of innovators. However, the escalating threat of frivolous liability litigation has already had a chilling impact on business' willingness to be open about what it knows and does, thus creating a knowledge gap among its potential next generation of workers and limiting the synergies of collaboration. Tort reform would be another worthy topic for presidential debate as we seek ways to create wealth through innovation rather than redistributing it through the courts.
Creating a national agenda on innovation, recreating public education, expressing value for knowledge, building a more vibrant communications infrastructure, leveraging our culture of openness, tort reform, and immigration reform are all topics of presidential scope that need to be on the table if we are to maintain a position of technological leadership in the world. Perhaps if these topics make the nightly news, I can tolerate this drawn out election season.
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Keith, I couldn't agree more with your comments. As a former high school science teacher I have long been concerned about United States' students lack of interest in pursuing science and engineering careers. They seem to shy away from subjects that require problem solving. Attempts by the National Science Foundation's STEM Initiative to turn this problem around have shown minimal results. As an educator and parent I have done my best to steer young people in this direction. I suggest that other concerned readers do the same.
Posted by: John DeVere on December 17, 2007
I truly believe that America is a very innovative nation despite the numbers you correctly pointed out; but more should be done. I live in Canada but manufacture and package in America. Why? Because americans embrace change and innovation like nobody else. When was the last time a Canadian, German, Japanese or Chinese won a Nobel Prize in Science? Nobody can remember.
More can and should be done and I welcome the idea of a Presidential Debate on INNOVATION; it is about the future!
P.S. Keep the good work Keith!.
Posted by: Jorge Romero on December 17, 2007
I think your right on. I to am fed up with the discussions these candidates have been preaching. I am also aware that most of the printing and packaging equipment in the US are imported. We need to build our manufactoring capabilities and be commited to buying US made products, even if it means subsidies to be paid.
Posted by: Dennis Kempf on December 17, 2007
Excellent column on a topic for the nomination candiates.
I learned a lot from this article plus the chance to read Dr. Kao`s book.
Having dinner tonight with two other Engineers, here in Canada and will bring up this topic for discussion.
Thanks for the enlightenment.
Ron Snow, P.Eng.
Posted by: Ron Snow on December 17, 2007
Further to your comments, the other side of the equation is the North American's unsatiable desire to purchase competitively priced items at bargain basement prices. These items are quickly coming from off-shore. Not only is North America rapidly being taken out of the loop in designing and manufacturing these items, the market for North American produced goods is evaporating due to off-shore supply from an economics standpoint.
We need to wake up quickly. Some of the purchase decisions made at grocery stores are being made for nickels and dimes. The money we save is then spent on a cup of coffee.
Posted by: Dan D'Amico, P.Eng. on December 17, 2007
Right on the money, Kieth, and well-said! My wife is a now-retired kindergarten teacher of nearly 25 years, and she can cite you dozens of reasons we may be the 2nd-highest spender in education, and one of the worst in getting back any bang for our buck (25th in results, I think you said...gads!!). In our society, the lack of interest for schooling starts in an all-too-often apathetic home environment that is based more on economic survival than child development, and is then made only worse by a school system that no longer challenges the kids, let alone teaches them anything worthwhile. If we could start with getting parents once again pro-actively interested and involved in their kids' future (at least beyond how they're going to afford their next Nintendo game or hot pair of Nike shoes), and then get the schools to provide some real stimulation of these young minds, maybe we could back to where we were at the end of WW2. Back to where we had a little fire in our belly as a nation, because we once again become a nation that successfully grows it's innovators "in-house", is proud of them, and openly and elaborately celebrates their achievements. Maybe then a young person would want to grow up to be an innovator, instead of a tort lawyer or an investment banker.
Posted by: Dave Zurlinden on December 17, 2007
@Jorge: I find Canadians very innovative! However, I don't feel you can equate a Noble prize with innovation (?one is for outstanding contribution to a field of science--with bias built into the process--while the other is measured by commercial success in market adaptation?)
"When was the last time a Canadian, German, Japanese or Chinese won a Nobel Prize in Science?" 1999 in Economics, 2007 in Chemistry, 2002 in Physics and Chemistry, and 1998 in Physics (respectively; the US basically wins one every year). Again, I am not sure it is fair to equate economic innovation with scientific awards; one is based ultimately on an individuals ability to desire a change based upon a perceived return of value for their risk, and the other is just an objective and dispassionate evaluation on what is a factual improvement in various fields and measurements -- the two really do not mix; besides we Americans are more risk adverse than ever and as a buddy noted, "fat cats do not hunt."
Posted by: chris on December 18, 2007
I couldn't agree with you more. If you look at the make up of science graduate students in this country, the majority are non-Americans that will take the education they receive back to their home country. More needs to be done for getting our country's youth in graduate science education.
Posted by: Greg on January 11, 2008
|About Keith Campbell
|Leaders learn from the past while
looking to the future - and bring both to bear on the here
and now. This is the philosophy that has steered Keith Campbell's
30+ years in manufacturing. It has worked for him in operations,
maintenance, engineering, R&D, education, consulting and
professional organizations--and now he's putting it to work
for you--taking you to the edge of his thoughts on packaging