Commentary - July, 2006

Science & Competitiveness

SCIENCE and U.S. COMPETITIVENESS

Alarms are going off through the media, industry and the halls of government, sounding loud warnings that the U.S. economy is in danger of losing its competitive edge in the world economy and sliding into decline. The U.S. rebounded after previous such alarms, following Sputnik in the ‘60’s and the threat of “Japan Incorporated” in the ‘80’s. What about now? Before we can get a prescription, we need a good diagnosis. What’s behind the alarms? What are the core issues?

On the surface, the alarms point to certain facts, that foreign competitors are:

  • Graduating many more scientists and engineers;
  • Generating more patents;
  • Spending more on R&D;
  • Saving and investing much more in their own countries;
  • Increasing their productivity more rapidly;
  • Exporting many more manufactured goods; and
  • Growing their economies faster.

These are symptoms, not causes. The first three are most indicative because science is now the basic force behind competitiveness. We used to point to technology as basic, as if it had a life of its own apart from science. Technology was seen as a source of products, of things that you could touch, smell, market and buy. Science? What’s that? A process? Like “basic research’? What good is it? Well, now we know, as we see basic research opening up whole new lines of product development in areas like biotech, nanotech and applied math. Simultaneously, time intervals that are important factors of competitiveness are being sharply cut -- the time lags from research to new product development and from new product development to markets.

But…science IS a process. So, to the extent that the key elements and overall integrity of the process are undermined or constrained, the fertility of science is reduced as a source of new technologies, product lines, etc. -- as a root source of competitiveness. The key elements are shown below.

 

SCIENCE AS A PROCESS

Openness        Questioning      Long-run perspective

Truthfulness    Dissent             Non-hierarchical

Accountability  Tolerance         Non-bureaucratic

Learning          Feedback         Evidence over Theory

Creativity        Innovation        Means over Ends

 

As you scan the elements above, consider two questions:

  1. What does “overall integrity” of the scientific process mean?
  2. What is it that makes the U.S. economy such a dynamic system?

“Integrity” means that the elements support or reinforce each other. Innovation -- the development of new products and new enterprises, for example, is helped by creativity, openness and questioning. Innovation is also key to change and adaptation in our communities and country. So it is one of the major keys to our economy as a dynamic system. Other keys to dynamism involve:

> learning (constantly increasing the knowledge-base of our economy),

> feedback (key to learning from our mistakes and from each other),

> truthfulness (being able to deal with problems without lying about them or denying them),

> openness (of minds and organizations and subsystems), and

> Non-hierarchical/non-bureaucratic (arrangements within organizations and between people).

The U.S. scores high on all these indicators relative to competitor nations. The main point of international competitiveness, however, is its dynamic quality; it’s increasing. The “ante” is constantly being raised. Over the past 125 years, we upped the ante on other industrial leaders, surpassing Great Britain, which used to be #1, early in the last century. Now, other countries, striving to catch up with workforces that are much hungrier than ours, are starting to up the ante on us. Some forecasters predict that the U.S. will become #2 to China’s #1 within 40 years. A recent article in Newsweek entitled “How Long Will America Lead the World?” says:

“be scared, very scared. (but) What we can do is take the best features of the American system -- openness, innovation…and flexibility -- an enhance them, so that they can respond to new challenges by creating new industries, new technologies and jobs, as we have in the past.” [Fareed Zakaria, in the June 12th, 2006 issue]

Openness and innovation bring us right back to our table of elements. Look again and ask: Why do we see less of the qualities of science needed to maintain the dynamism of our society and our leadership in World-class competition? The answer? -- primarily because they are not built into the very practice, discipline, organization and structure of politics and government as they are in science. There are no adequate norms of truthfulness, for instance, “built into” the political process. Rather the opposite: Politicians have incentives to lie.

Consider “means over ends.” The dynamic of science is directly attributable to its scrupulous attention to means over ends. The means are a direct reflection of basic values. These include truthfulness, tolerance, respect for knowledge, questioning, creativity and dissent. The latter three, among others, are not honored by the political process. The cultures of politics and government put a high premium on conformity, as in the prescription “go along, get along.” They also encourage an unethical attitude -- that “the end justifies the means.” Some psychologists would view those acting out this attitude as sociopaths.

Also consider “learning.” What counts most is the ability of a community or country to evaluate real experience as a basis for understanding and improvement. In the arenas of politics and government, program evaluation, is honored mostly in the breach. We little evidence that politicians and government employees have built learning into their systems in any way comparable to the ways this is built into the practices of the scientific community.

We could continue to contrast science vs. politics/government on each of the elements, but our main conclusion is already apparent: the two sides of the divide are conflicting and badly out of sync. The consequences are troublesome and dangerous. One is that politicians try to control what they do not understand. This has been evident, for example, with several aspects of research into microbiology, especially stem cell research and other research involving recombinant DNA or gene therapy. The knee-jerk reaction of politicians and government bureaucrats is: REGULATE it! So, is it any surprise that other places in the world threaten to get a jump on us, to become leading centers of stem cell and related research and garner the lion’s share of the spin-off medical and economic benefits of such scientific leadership?

The major question of consequence, however, is one of far greater scope in the future than is implied by the past. It is whether a political/governmental system so far out of sorts with science can lead our country through the 21st century. The answer is NO; the implications are many. What do you think?

PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., author of WE, THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism [Alpha Publishing, 2004), www.politicalcommunity.us, 6/27/06.

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