U.S. tech lead at risk, says Obama’s top scientist

December 6, 2010 at 2:52 pm 5 comments

I suspect that this is going to become the most pressing argument for increasing the number of students pursuing CS-STEM degrees.  CS enrollment is rising again, but still with a big gap from where it was and where the Bureau of Labor Statistics says it needs to be.  However, that’s not a compelling story when there are so many out-of-work IT workers. The issue about innovation and competitiveness is more pressing. Losing our CS-STEM workers also means losing our edge, losing our ability to innovate and compete.  It’s also bad news for the rest of the world — US innovation has done the whole world a lot of good (Internet, anyone?).  As that engine slows, the pace of innovation for the whole world slows.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the only member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet with a degree in a hard science, believes the U.S. is at risk of losing its leadership in technology as the nation’s competitiveness deteriorates.

Chu, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997, used statistics and blunt language in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington Monday to point out that the U.S. lead in technology is declining and is in need of turnaround. He characterized the current situation as a “Sputnik moment” for the U.S.

via U.S. tech lead at risk, says Obama’s top scientist – Computerworld.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  December 6, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    The big problem is that our “acceleration” and “velocity” were lost long ago when we stopped “golden age funding”, and we’ve been running on fumes ever since.

    I’m hoping that Chu really understands the difference between research and development — aka the difference between invention and innovation.

    The latter has always been of most interest to American business and congressional folks. But not a lot has happened in the “real research” and “real invention” areas since 1980, and I wonder if anyone who can do anything has enough perspective to understand the big differences and what really needs to be done.



  • 2. Katrin Becker  |  December 6, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Here’s a perspective from someone who has watched the US decline from the outside:

    I don’t think the world relies on the US to set the pace for of much of anything any longer.

    Its role as leader has been slipping for a long time. The pace of innovation globally is no longer tied to what happens in the US. As the pace of innovation in the US continues to slow, other countries simply step up to fill the void. While there will likely not be a single nation that will be able to lay claim to the scope of innovation that came out of the US in the latter half of the last century, it is possible the the era of US-supremacy is gone for good.

    I think visions of regaining supremacy lead to misdirected effort. A preoccupation with being “best” is part of what’s interfering with the US’s ability to once again become really good at something – maybe even many things; but not everything.

    Britain was slow to recognize it had lost its empire too.

  • 3. Mike Byrne  |  December 7, 2010 at 1:33 am

    Katrin’s response reminds me a little of Paul Graham’s famous “Microsoft is Dead”, with the United States playing the role, of course, of Microsoft. Microsoft stopped really meaningful innovation a while back, and their stock has been essentially flat since Ballmer took over as CEO in late 1999 (see Microsoft’s Performance Chart).

    I wonder a little if that’s the current U.S. position. Formerly a leader, still large, powerful, and profitable, but no longer ahead of the curve, and missing the boat with increasing frequency.

    I rather suspect that “generate more STEM grads” is not the entire answer to that problem, nor is elevated levels of research funding. Both would likely help, to be sure, but I think the problem is larger than that. I think we as a nation lack the cultural and political will to do anything really substantial anymore (with the possible exception of invading another country). For example, there’s still nothing at Ground Zero and lots of New Orleans still isn’t rebuilt–there is no way we would put up with than in the 1950s and 60s. Rather than rolling up our sleeves and dealing with these things, we argue about how to do them and who to blame for them not being done.

    It’s a Sputnik moment, but there’s no Sputnik to galvanize us.

  • 4. Alan Kay  |  December 7, 2010 at 10:35 am

    In the case of computer science — which I think is quite generally broken in academia (with a few exceptions) — upping the enrollments and production of degree bearing students will possibly make things even worse.

    This is not unlike the real problems in STEM education in K-12 — putting more resources into a badly conceived and run process will not come close to helping children learn the STEM subjects.

    One of the interesting and pernicious “features” of NSF is that it tries to let itself be directed by the scientific communities that it serves. This is admirable, but consider the other edge of the sword if a particular community is not up to snuff. Yikes!

    I’ve been advocating to both NSF and DARPA that they start correcting the current problems by more pointed funding and tougher (and “real”) reviews. This is not a popular subject.

    Best wishes,




  • […] consider the competitiveness angle, which comes up often in computing education research.  There is certainly evidence that the United States test scores ranks far behind countries like […]


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