America’s R&D train wreck

Eight out of ten Americans tell pollsters they believe the nation is on the “wrong track,” an analogy born of the age of the railroad. Unfortunately, passenger trains are faster and fuller elsewhere than they are in America.

Fareed Zakaria, the highly regarded foreign affairs columnist, has a new book, “The Post-American World,” where he asserts that despite the deep malaise Americans are in at the moment, America has not lost its ability to be the world leader.

In a synopsis in Newsweek, he wrote: “The world’s tallest building is in Taipei, and will soon be in Dubai. Its largest publicly traded company is in Beijing. Its biggest refinery is being constructed in India. Its largest passenger airplane is built in Europe. The largest investment fund on the planet is in Abu Dhabi; the biggest movie industry is Bollywood, not Hollywood.”

He goes on to note that the largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore, the largest casino is in Macao and The Mall of America in Minnesota is not even in the world’s top ten largest shopping mall.

But he concludes the post-American world “will not be a world defined by the decline of America but rather the rise of everyone else. It is the result of a series of positive trends that have been progressing over the last 20 years, trends that have created an international climate of unprecedented peace and prosperity.”

One statistic Zakaria cites is that the share of people living on $1 a day has declined by more than half in 20 years, from 40 percent to 18 percent and is supposed to drop to 12 percent in seven more years. This is almost totally due to America.

His can-do, will-do upbeat attitude about America’s future is, in part, well founded. The American economic model has been good for the world, and America’s economy is still the most competitive in the world.

But there is a worrisome aspect that Zakaria and like-minded optimists have not fully explored. That is the undeniable fact that the U.S. government research is declining, not expanding and that a large part of the money that is spent ($137 billion out of a $2.7 trillion federal budget) is for military research.

Two experts on world trends, Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies, have put together a list of 55 trends shaping tomorrow’s world, newly published by the World Future Society, a non-partisan, non-profit group that for years has studied forecasts and trends.

Their conclusion is that this country is “ceding its scientific and technical leadership to other countries.”

Cetron and Davies argue that Washington has abandoned interest in basic science. As a result, they claim, only half of American patents are granted to Americans, more than half of its scientists and engineers are about ready to retire, the number of U.S. degrees in engineering in 2005 was about 15 percent below the number 20 years earlier. Only six percent of American undergraduates study engineering; in China, the number is 40 percent, although not all of them study pure engineering, as we define it.

Yet because of 9/11 restrictions imposed by Washington, fewer foreign students are coming to America to study — and to stay and work in science and engineering. Cetron and Davies argue that America already has lost its biomedical edge to other countries such as the United Kingdom because of culturally imposed restrictions on such things as stem-cell research. The United States now lags behind China in exports of information technology and communications products.

“If this trend is not reversed,” the two argue, “it will begin to undermine the U.S. economy and shift both economic and political power to other lands” with a direct decline in the vaunted U.S. standard of living.

In other words, if we don’t get the R&D locomotive back on the right track, it won’t matter where the rest of the train was headed.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail her at amcfeatters(at)


  1. jay_spaan_sr

    With all due respect Ms. Ann…

    Did you know it takes almost a year to get a reservation to go on a trip on a passenger train?

    It is the event of a lifetime too. We went from a small town in Texas to Atlanta, almost to Chicago and thru the West. It was the Greatest Adventure.

    The motion of the train and “clank-a-da-clank” not only puts your sexual drive in “overdrive”, but also seems to heighten intellect and dignity. You cannot believe the scenery. From the worst slums to the greatest untouched forests in this country. Both sad and awe-inspiring.

    The food: phenomenal. Service: second to none. Bar: fantastic. Cabins: small and cozy but luxurious.

    We went before 9/11 and we brought a suitcase full of bottle-rockets and roman candles. No one checked baggage back then. The fun we had opening the window and letting those babies fly into the air; the people living near the tracks didn’t seem to mind, but then we were going kinda fast. You can’t do them too long cause they try to find you.

    Did you know they still have jails on trains?

    I wouldn’t have known that but one of the roman-candle balls didn’t make it thru the window and bounced around that room after it set my leg on fire and set the rest of the fireworks off. The smoke and fire and all of us running around screaming gave us away.

    Did you know they have firemen on trains still? They didn’t even tell us how stupid we were until they put out the fire.

    They have really good nurses on trains too. She didn’t mention at all how stupid we were until everyone of us on fire was settled down in the jail.

    The Sheriff’s department in the small town about 50 miles out of Gary Indiana were really nice guys too. They let each and every one of us make a phone call to our parents and send them money for our overnite visit. The food was pretty darn good too. The cabins could have been better, but the scenery out the window was great.

    It was a lot better than the bus we took back home.

  2. pollchecker

    The writer makes an EXCELLENT POINT! AMERICA is no longer #1!

    Greedy SOB’s that we are we have sold it off one piece at a time.

    The majority of jobs being created are SERVICE JOBS! These are waiters, retail sales people, maids, etc. Really going to pay for that high priced college degree on those wages.

    Manufacturing jobs? We only lose manufacturing jobs to other countries so our corporate fat cats can make an ever GREATER PROFIT at other people’s expense.

    Hell, Pharmacuetical companies aren’t even doing their own research anymore. That used to be the excuse those same companies gave for making such tremendous profits and not paying equally tremendous profits, they had a risk.

    Today universities funded by FEDERAL MONEY (your tax dollars) are doing the research and then selling their work to the highest bidder. There is no repayment of the money to do the research and in many cases American citizens are denied access to the results of this research because they don’t have the money and/or their insurance won’t pay for it.

    What do we manufacture? Weapons! I bet we are the top military manufacturer of WEAPONS in the world. Says something about our country doesn’t it?