In case you were asleep in the last 10 years, here are two news items:
- The U.S. is getting progressively more stupid in science and engineering.
- We are shooting ourselves in the foot by making the problem even worse.
The grim facts
The facts are well-known.
- Our educational system is in a shambles. Our children score consistently low on international tests in math and science. Some third world countries are ahead of us.
- We are not graduating nearly enough engineers and scientists to satisfy the needs of the technology and biotechnology industries.
- Several technology companies stated that they opened research and engineering centers in countries like Israel, India, and China not because salaries are lower there, but because those countries could provide the brain power they couldn’t find in the U.S. Just ask Bill Gates. Did the country take notice when he issued his dire warning? At the time, the media—and the country as whole—were too busy with the scandal de jour of some celebrity.
An unscientific experiment
These facts came to mind when I perused the book of abstracts of papers to be presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago June 1-5, 2007; this is the premier meeting of the science and practice of oncology.
During the long years I attended scientific and clinical meetings, I was struck by the increasing proportion of research papers originating in foreign countries, and the proportion of obviously foreign-born scientists presenting papers from U.S. institutions. Going through the thick book of abstracts, I decided to try and semi-quantify my gut feeling. I picked at random 10 pages of abstracts and counted the proportion of U.S. and foreign institutions per page. Admittedly, this is hardly a scientifically designed study; the book contains 593 pages of abstracts, so 10 pages are only 1.7% of the total—hardly an adequate statistical sample. Still…good enough for our purpose.
And the results…?
The 10 pages contained 40 abstracts. Of those, 36 were from institutions abroad; this is a full 90%! Mind you, the A in ASCO stands for American.
Here are some specific examples. Two pages were from the section on Developmental Therapeutics and Cytotoxic Chemotherapy. One page had abstracts from Singapore, Netherlands, Japan, and Canada. The other page had two abstracts from France, one each from Spain and the U.S. In another section, Breast Cancer—Metastatic, one page contained one abstract each from Italy, Israel, France, and U.S. In yet another section, Breast Cancer—Local-regional and adjuvants, the contributions on the random page were from U.K., Italy, Germany, and Switzerland.
My point is not to begrudge the accomplishments of Europe, Asia, and Latin America. On the contrary, I am full of admiration of the huge strides these countries have made. I still remember a European oncology meeting I attended in Paris about 15 years ago. In a conversation with the organizer and chairman of the meeting, I was disheartened, but not surprised, to be told that the reason I was one of the very few American speakers invited to present their research was that the Europeans felt inferior to their American colleagues because of their superior research institutions and the overwhelming wealth of resources they enjoyed.
How did they get from there to here?
The only way to compete and survive in Tom Friedman’s flat world is through innovation. Other countries took this lesson to heart. In my travel to India, I was struck by the proliferation of “computer schools” in almost every dusty, decrepit little town. In Israel, every high school offers 2 years of advanced mathematics, molecular biology, biotechnology, and computer science courses.
In countries like Poland, Russia, and Indonesia, I met amazingly well-informed, dedicated, and enthusiastic doctors and scientists eager to participate in international clinical trials. All this was happening around us while we rested smugly on our laurels of yesteryear.
What is being done about it?
Actually, quite a bit.
- After 9/11 we passed draconian laws that essentially made it impossible for foreign students to come here for advanced studies.
- Listen to some of our ante-diluvian politicians, and you would think that the hordes of “them foreigners” are coming here to suck our resources dry. A quick tour of Silicon Valley tells a different story; an inordinate number of technology and biotechnology companies were founded and are run by foreign-born scientists who came to the U.S. as students. Have you ever bought anything on eBay? Founded by Indians. Intel? Founded by a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who came here as a student. Applied Materials? Founded by an Israeli engineer (Full disclosure: a classmate of mine from elementary school). SanDisk (the biggest maker of flash memory chips)? Another Israeli. And so on, and so on. These are not little boutiques—these are huge companies, employing people in the tens of thousands, each.
- The xenophobic atmosphere created by know-nothing politicians and radio jock-shocks is harmful to our national well-being. Back to my little experiment. I know two of the research teams, one from California and the other from Texas, that are presenting at ASCO. Of a total of 15 authors, nine are from Taiwan (3), China (2), Korea (3) or France (1). None of them plans to stay after finishing his research. The reason? The atmosphere is better back home, and opportunities are becoming plentiful.
What are the consequences?
If you think that only national pride is at stake here, think again.
- The session on Developmental Therapeutics is where discoveries of new therapies and innovative new drugs are reported. Only 1 in 8 institutions in this section was from the U.S. No wonder the drug pipeline of companies like Pfizer is quite empty.
- Boeing’s CEO predicted today that his company is likely to face its stiffest competition from a company that is not in existence yet—in China.
- While our administration was busy suppressing research on global warming (it actually edited out this term from scientific papers written by government scientists), China has built a huge solar panel industry. One of the richest men in China made his fortune through founding SunTech, a solar power company. Wind power, one of the most promising “green” technologies, is dominated by a Dutch company. Many thousands of people are employed by those companies.
We are losing our scientific edge, and the economic consequences are going to be painful. We need to wake up before it is too late.