September 24, 2009
IN THE NEWS: Newsweek asks, "Is America Losing Its Mojo?"
In Newsweek's most recent cover story, the oft-times brilliant Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post American World, asks the question: "Is America Losing Its Mojo?" And, if so, is there anything we can do about it? Zakaria argues that the America we know and love for its plucky "can do" spirit was largely a product of a strategic advantage gained as a result of the Second World War. With the European and Japanese innovation centers crippled and beset with reconstruction, and a flood of intellectual refugees arriving by the day, America by and large had a generation's head-start on the rest of the world. That, coupled with large public investment in basic R&D, guaranteed America's success.
Government funding of basic research has been astonishingly productive. Over the past five decades it has led to the development of the Internet, lasers, global positioning satellites, magnetic resonance imaging, DNA sequencing, and hundreds of other technologies. Even when government was not the inventor, it was often the facilitator. One example: semiconductors. As a study by the Breakthrough Institute notes, after the microchip was invented in 1958 by an engineer at Texas Instruments, "the federal government bought virtually every microchip firms could produce." This was particularly true of the Air Force, which needed chips to guide the new Minuteman II missiles, and NASA, which required advanced chips for the on-board guidance computers on its Saturn rockets. "NASA bought so many [microchips] that manufacturers were able to achieve huge improvements in the production process--so much so, in fact, that the price of the Apollo microchip fell from $1,000 per unit to between $20 and $30 per unit in the span of a couple years."
Over the past two decades, the three great waves that carried America to the heights of innovation have started to ebb. Obviously, the rest of the world is not in ruins--quite the contrary. Other countries are growing rapidly and hoping to rise up the value chain. China has declared that 60 percent of its GDP will be related to science and technology within two decades. More pertinent right now is Europe, which is peaceful, prosperous, and productive. The continent's unity might be limited in the geopolitical realm, but European nations have come together to spend lavishly on signature scientific projects. Consider the Large Hadron Collider, primarily a European enterprise, which cost more than $5 billion. It is the successor to the U.S.-based Superconducting Super Collider, which was shut down in the early 1990s by the House of Representatives after 14 miles of tunnel had been constructed at a cost of $2 billion.
And then there is the challenge from Asia. The numbers are small, but the trend is clear. Pharmaceutical research--dominated by America today--is succumbing to the same dynamics that drove T-shirt manufacturing and electronics production overseas. "In 2006, 5.5 percent of all global pharmaceutical patent applications named one inventor or more located in India, and 8.4 percent named one or more located in China," according to a report by the Kauffman Foundation. This was a fourfold increase from 1995, and corresponds to a surge in drug demand in emerging markets--from 13 percent of global industry sales growth in 2001 to 27 percent in 2006.
With the end of the Cold War, Americans stopped worrying about the Soviet threat and, as a result, R&D funding for applied science plummeted, dropping 40 percent in the 1990s. It has picked up since then, but the government's share of overall R&D spending remains near its all-time low. And while corporations still spend on R&D, they do not fund the kind of basic research that leads to breakthroughs.
Read the full article here.