U.S. Losing its Innovative Touch, say Scientists

Dennis Faas's picture

The United States has long been considered an "innovation nation". But last year, John Kao, an accomplished jazz keyboard player, Yale philosopher, Medical School graduate, and an MBA from Harvard Business school sounded the alarm: America was losing its innovative touch.

In his book, prepared for the 2008 presidential election candidates (inspired by Hillary Clinton), Kao points out that innovation drives geopolitical position and America is losing it. (Source: businessweek.com)

The main justifications for his position come from the globalization phenomena. He cited several observations in support of his premise:

  • Good talent is now available anywhere and is as readily available in China as it is in the U.S.
  • Capital is now available anywhere. Venture capital is as easily obtained on the Pacific Rim as it is in India, Europe or the U.S., and is now fuelling a whole new generation of non-U.S. start-ups.
  • Silicon Valley is now anywhere. Every major nation has duplicated the dynamics and infrastructure of Silicon Valley including Bangalore (India), Otaniemi (Finland) , Biopolis (Singapore) and many others.
  • Military spending and the inherent technology spin-offs are now anywhere. He cites 42 leading-edge weapons technologies of which 20 came form outside the United States.

(Source: innovationation.org)

A year ago, Kao suggested that innovation become a White House cabinet-level focus. Nothing, however, has happened on that front yet.

His book did, however, set off a flurry of innovation-focused hearings, panels, articles, government inquiries and so forth. Outside the U.S. it also spurred the U.K., China, India and other countries to do exactly as he suggested -- put innovation on the national political agenda.

But last week, another nail in the innovation coffin appeared. Judy Estrin, the former Chief Technology Officer at Cisco published her new book called: "Closing The Innovation Gap". She claims there is a national "innovation deficit" in spite of all the attention focused on it since Kao's first assertion.

She argues that the lack of risk-taking, and the short-term thinking evidenced by both venture capitalists and business leaders has mixed with the decline in federal and university financing for research. The effect is to evaporate the country's innovation. In some respects, she credits the dot-com bust for taming innovation in the U.S. while other countries have since become more aggressive. China, for example, has invested $40 billion in innovation just in the last year. (Source: nytimes.com)

Estrin also believes that education is a key factor in the paucity of innovation. She blames the lack of qualified teachers who must teach the sciences in grades K-12 and the lack of focus on the sciences. Moreover, more than 30% of Indian and Chinese college graduates are focused on the engineering sciences compared with only 5% in the U.S. Worse, 60% of the engineering doctorates granted in American universities are to foreign nationals who subsequently return home.

Is she right? Is American innovation a thing of the past? Is innovation in the United States turning into technological stagnation? Judith Estrin believes the next decade will tell us for sure.

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