As US competitiveness is increasingly challenged on all sides, the forced attrition of women from the science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) workforce represents an annual cost of billions of dollars. This loss comes at a time when the United States is facing an absolute decline in entry-level engineers and growing rivalry from foreign innovators. Most discussions hold that gender equality is the primary benefit of, and reason for, getting more women into science. But this is not the primary benefit. Instead, the failure to expand women's participation in science is not simply an issue of "feminism" or civil rights but increasingly a problem for US economic security.
Problem: Decline in US Technological Capabilities
For the last decade, a parade of reports has documented a slow erosion of the United States' relative advantage in science and technology. The alarm sounded by the National Academy of Sciences analysis, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," is only the latest of these troubling surveys. After almost a century of near technological predominance, the United States has become a consistent net importer of high technology, shifting slowly from a US$22.4 billion high-tech trade surplus in 1990 to a US$134.6 billion trade deficit by 2005. The United States' share of world science and engineering research publications has also fallen; while the United States now trails even in the use of high technologies, most of which were US inventions, including (percapita) the internet (9th), broadband (12th), and cellular phones (53rd).
The implications for US competitiveness should be clear to all. National strength in science and technology directly feeds US economic growth, industrial prowess, military might, and increasing living standards. Economists estimate that half of US economic growth since World War II has come from new technology, creating productivity improvements in every sector of its economy.
After peaking during the 1990s, the wellspring of US science and technology appears to have slipped into relative decline and is evident in the broader economy. Over the last decade, US patents as a percentage of world patents have fallen by one percent each year. And while per capita patenting rates are climbing within the United States (1.66 percent annually during 1996-2005), innovation rates are rising even faster outside the United States (2.31 percent annually from 1996-2005).
Perhaps more worrying is the fact that US high-technology small business formation has dropped in every sector. This is important because small business formation represents the traditional seedbed for new technologies and industries. Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Apple, and Google all began in garages and university dorms as small businesses, as did many of the telecom, internet, alternative energy, and even some of the biotechnology firms of the 1990s.
In contrast, foreign firms have vastly improved their scientific and technological capabilities. We have seen the rise of technological competitors in Ireland, Israel, Finland, Taiwan, South Korea, and a half-dozen other countries. Toyota and Honda now mass-produce the most advanced hybrid automobiles. Spain is home to Europe's first commercial concentrating solar power plant and is a lead producer of wind power technologies, and Israel's Checkpoint is the inventor and market leader of network security "firewalls."
China, according to most analysts, now looms as the next major technological competitor to the United States. Although the data remain cloudy, China produces at least twice the number of engineers as the United States. In published research, China now ranks second in engineering and chemistry and third in physics and mathematics. High-tech production has been outsourced to take advantage of this labor supply, making China the world's biggest exporter of telecom equipment, computers, electronic components, and now even the world's largest producer of solar panels. …