In the past 50 years, the United States gradually lost its franchise for mass manufacturing on everything from plastic toys and metal screws to automobiles and computer microprocessors. Many items we once bought almost exclusively from domestic companies, such as televisions, are no longer manufactured here.
But the U.S. economy has endured this loss, in part, because it shifted to leading the transformation from 20th century science fiction to 21st century science fact. We can track the stock market and sports scores through tiny cell phones while sipping drinks at the corner coffee shop. We use lasers to operate on our eyes and eliminate the need for corrective lenses. We design robots sophisticated enough to dance in lines, clean sewer pipes and disarm bombs.
But we are losing our franchise on technological innovation, as well. The computer and wireless revolution has made it possible for countries previously trapped in Third World mindsets to reach for the lifestyles and luxuries of the industrialized West. Specialized training in math, science and engineering is pushing nations across Asia into the upper realms of discoveries and business applications.
Such changes offer the hope of reducing poverty and expanding liberty around the globe. But they also hold out the threat of eroding our own living standards if the United States fails to keep pace. The nonprofit Council on Competitiveness reported in October 2005 that half of all U.S. patents now are issued to foreign-owned companies and foreign-born inventors. And six of the world’s 25 most competitive information technologies are based in the United States, while 14 are based in Asia.
Gov. Janet Napolitano has issued a call for Arizona and other states to confront the implications of these trends before they undermine our economic vitality. Napolitano has used her role as the current chairwoman of the bipartisan National Governors Association to launch an education initiative she calls Innovation America. Today, Napolitano will convene a study group of other governors, business leaders and university presidents here in the Valley to work with the Council on Competitiveness on developing a set of principles to guide states on reforming both primary and university education.
Becky Hill, Napolitano’s advisor on primary education, said the governor’s focus is on “innovation capacity,” or the need to encourage more young people to become scientific-minded thinkers who will discover new medical cures and technology breakthroughs, and then make it possible for those thinkers to find the resources in this country to bring their discoveries to the free market.
There should be plenty of debate, and a fair amount of skepticism, about the proper role of government in the business of science. But Napolitano deserves praise for using her influence to bring more attention to this global phenomenon, and for bringing together some bright people to talk about what we must do to keep our economic footing.