Early on in "Rainbows End," a new science fiction novel by Vernor Vinge due out in May, there is a passing reference to how national survival depends on having the largest population of highly educated citizens. Forget about access to resources, or army size, or any other metric of comparison. In the late 21st century, the only way to compete globally is to have the most PhDs.
It's easy to read the comment as a backhanded salute to the current competitive pressures of globalization. As the global integration of labor markets continue, the only way out is to get ahead. There will no doubt be lots of jobs for Americans who can speak Chinese in the not-too-distant future, for example.
Does the U.S. have the will to do what it takes, which would be nothing less than a Marshall plan for education, a massive mobilization of resources to be applied at every level of the education system? Well, that is the question, isn't it?
Certainly, if you read the actual words of President Bush's "American Competitiveness Initiative" with its pledges to boost research and development spending and support for education, it sounds like he has a plan pointing in the right direction. But as many have noted already, it's hard to put much credence in the rhetoric of a President who pledges to boost spending in renewable energy technologies, even as 80 people are being laid off from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory because of budget cuts. Talk about your credibility gaps.
Meanwhile, on Feb. 8, China's State Council announced plans to massively boost R&D spending and lift the entire nation out of poverty by 2050. By 2020, according to the announcement, China hopes to double the current figures for R&D as a percentage of the national gross domestic product from 1.3 percent to 2.5 percent. (The U.S.'s share of national R&D as percentage of GDP was 2.6 in 2003.)
Over the last couple of months, there's been quite a lot of pushback in the U.S. against the idea that India and China are investing so much in R&D and graduating so many engineers that the U.S. is about to be knocked from the top of the technology heap. The scary stats on engineers (in 2004, 600,000 undergraduate engineers in China, a mere 70,000 or so in the U.S.) appear to be particularly overblown.
But current comparisons are not the point. The all important indicator is the trend line. And that's where Americans have a right to get a bit antsy. Because the truly odd thing is that when the leaders of China, who are not in the least bit accountable to the people and have no love for a free press or dissent of any kind, pledge to vastly increase spending on R&D and continue to upgrade their educational systems, I believe every word. But when the President of my own country addresses his citizens and makes bold promises, I don't buy it for a second.