Science and Engineering Macroeconomic Investment

I posted to the Curious Cat Science Blog on the Science and Engineering Doctoral Degrees being granted around the world. Why do I post this here as a Economic post? I believe, as do some countries that have made significant commitments to investing in science and technology education that such investments can have a large impact on long term economic success. A couple points from that post:

From The Brain Drain by Debra W. Stewart, The Boston Globe

Thirty years ago the United States annually produced the vast majority of the world’s doctoral degrees. But in 1999, Europe surpassed US production of PhDs in science and engineering by more than 2,000 scholars. Asia, too, is rapidly closing its gap in doctoral production, with the governments of China, India, and Korea heavily investing in capacity at the graduate level.

And from Security, Innovation, and Human Capital in the Global Interest by Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

It may come as a surprise that, in the most recent year for which data is available (2000), out of 2.8 million first university degrees in science and engineering granted worldwide, only 400,000 were granted in the U.S.A. while European universities granted 830,000 and 1.2 million were earned by Asian students in Asian universities.

How we choose to spend the hundreds of billions above the taxes collected each year is a political decision. When you look at the current transportation bill signed today by President Bush you get a picture of where those priorities lay: “The bill’s price tag was $30 billion more than Bush had recommended, but he said he was proud to sign it.” – see CNN article.

Two years in the making, the highway bill contains more than 6,371 special projects valued at more than $24 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Taxpayers for Common Sense Statement on the President’s signing of the porky highway bill.

Statement from the Coalition for National Science Funding on the current budget plan for the National Science Foundation for FY 2005.

mark of $5.47 billion is two percent less than the current FY 2004 NSF budget and is five percent less than the President’Â’s FY 2005 budget request for the NSF. Reduction in the NSF budget will curtail many current research efforts and inhibit new program starts – putting at risk this country’s leadership in many scientific fields.

This budget action is diametrically opposite of Public Law (PL) 107-368, authorizing a doubling of the NSF budget over five years.

Choosing to spend $30 billion over what President Bush proposed on building more highways while cutting the National Science Foundation budget (which totals less than 20% of the excess funding for the highway bill) seems like a bad idea to me. Also this shows why you shouldn’t pay much attention to what is “said” by politicians but instead look where they put our money.

The United States has benefited tremendously from the decisions to fund the National Science Foundation (as well as other investments in science) for decades. Other countries have seen the wisdom in those investments and seem to be committing much more to those investments than the US lately. I think it is very wise of them and will serve the world well. But I fear the United States has already allowed itself to lose a great deal of the competitive advantage it built up in the middle of the last century.

In the last couple decades we have been able to coast on the lead we had. We could have many of the best minds come to our colleges and then keep them here once they graduated with advanced degrees. However, the lead we had is rapidly being eliminated. This does not mean the US will immediately be uncompetitive. But it will mean one of the great advantages we had will be greatly reduced.

The United States still has competitive advantages that will continue to serve us well in harnessing advanced technology for economic gain. But others have been making strategic decisions to gain some of those advantages for themselves. And the United States will almost certainly continue to see its scientific and engineering leadership in the world erode. And the economic consequences will be dramatic.

I believe it would be wise to invest billions in our scientific and technological future (including more funding for the National Science Foundation and improving our k-12 math and science education). But that is a decisions our political leaders will make. Lets hope they chose wisely.

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