R&D: Key to the 21st Century: In Our Global, Technology-Driven Economy, America Must Invest More in Science and Engineering to Maintain Its Ability to Compete for Business and Jobs

By Augustine, Norman R. | Research-Technology Management, November-December 2009 | Go to article overview

R&D: Key to the 21st Century: In Our Global, Technology-Driven Economy, America Must Invest More in Science and Engineering to Maintain Its Ability to Compete for Business and Jobs


Augustine, Norman R., Research-Technology Management


The ability to compete in our newly evolved world is closely tied to a nation's prowess in science and engineering. Scientists and engineers comprise only 4 percent of America's workforce but this small fraction vastly disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent.

A number of studies have found that between 50 and 85 percent of the United States' growth in Gross Domestic Product during the past half-century can be attributed to scientific and engineering achievements. The Federal Reserve Board has concluded that nearly two-thirds of the increase in U.S. labor productivity in the last decade is attributable to the federal government's investment in research in science and engineering. These facts have not gone unnoticed by the leaders of other countries, such as China where eight of the top nine leaders are engineers. In contrast, more members of the U.S. House of Representatives (in a burst of candor!) list themselves as actors and entertainers than as engineers.

But let me begin at the beginning. My geologist friends tell me that something over 200 million years ago many of what today are the earth's major continents were joined in a single "supercontinent" known as Gondwanaland. It included, in part, what is now South America, Africa, Australia, Antartica, Arabia, and the Indian Peninsula. Over time, these land masses slowly drifted apart, with their influence on one another correspondingly diminishing.

Then, according to my economist friends, in just the last few decades, all those bodies came crashing back together again. As Tom Friedman put it in his remarkable book, The World is Flat, "Globalization has accidentally made Beijing, Bangalore and Bethesda next door neighbors." This truly is a remarkable happenstance--200 million years of moving apart effectively reversed in just a few decades!

Today a single trader in Singapore can bring down one of England's most venerable banks; a problem with the economy in Southeast Asia produces a shock wave in the stock market in Europe; the "Shanghai Surprise" undermines the value of U.S. equities; the devaluation of the Russian ruble destroys the best known hedge fund in America; America's sub-prime credit crunch pushes Iceland into bankruptcy. And so it goes in this modern version of Gondwanaland, a world itself brought on largely by advances in science and engineering.

Death of Distance

Frances Cairncross, writing in The Economist, called this trend "The Death of Distance" to address the phenomenon of parties to many transactions no longer needing to be in close physical proximity to one another. Simply put, distance no longer matters.

Numerous real-world examples of the Death of Distance can already be found in our daily lives. For example:

* If a consumer places a telephone call to a customer service department to resolve a problem with their computer, bank account or even golf reservation, there is a non-trivial likelihood that he or she will speak with an individual in Bangalore, Jamaica, or some other such place. One international call center is now being operated by prisoners in Rome's Rebibbia prison (of course, we have a lot of business talent in U.S. prisons, too!). In India, to better prepare students for jobs in call centers, courses are being offered on how to speak with a mid-western accent. The workers are also told to choose a pseudonym that will make American callers more comfortable. My neighbor recently talked to a fellow in India who insisted his name was "Abraham Lincoln." Really! Not long ago I lost a suitcase when traveling between Washington, D.C. and Ithaca, New York, but to find it I had to speak with a fellow in Costa Rica. Reflecting this shrinking world, he actually advised me: "Never check your bag when you go through Philadelphia. In Philadelphia there are only two kinds of bags--carry-on ... and lost!"

* Visitors to one firm's offices not far from the White House are greeted by a pleasant woman whose image appears on a flat-screen display in the lobby of the building where she handles appointments, access, and other administrative matters. …

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