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)nationalpress.com.)