In an article lost in centrism, Ars Technica has shed light on a study by the RAND corporation, indicating that the United States is still number one in Research and Development.

Never mind what you’ve heard, the US is still far and away the world’s leader in science and technology. That’s the conclusion of a new report issued by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to evaluating public policy, which performed the analysis at the behest of the US Department of Defense. The report does highlight some negatives, however, as it notes that US students perform worse at science relative to their peers elsewhere, and suggests we don’t really understand how our increased reliance on foreign workers will play out in the long run.

It doesn’t take a study to see what is happening. Asking any parent of a child at public school will give all the answers needed. There is no concentration on science and math – the teachers are covering their collective butts by teaching only what will allow their charges to pass the tests at the end of the year. The students have been led to believe that having knowledge is something left to the nerds…that one only needs to be able to operate or exploit the wonders that those geeks have provided – no other comprehension is necessary. Also, in a totally apolitical moment, devoid of any left leanings I might have – the children in school see how the most powerful job in the world has been taken by an imbecile, who neither understands, nor wishes to understand anything concerning science. This ‘leader’ cannot even speak coherently in public much of the time. This leads to the idea that since a buffoon has done so well for himself, why should study beyond the level of 5th or 6th grade be necessary. In true Jethro Bodine-style, the children have come to believe that they have a ‘heap o’ learnin’’ and they are ready to be a ‘double naught spy’ or any other job the world has to offer.

The new publication originated in a conference hosted by RAND back in late 2006; speakers there contributed papers that described their take on a given topic. RAND gathered those papers and edited them into a book form (PDF). The editors of that book are responsible for the new report, which they’ve generated, in part, based on the earlier conference proceedings.

First, the good news: the US still outspends any other political entity when it comes to research, including the entire EU. About 40 percent of the total global R&D is spent in the States. The rate of increase of those expenditures, by most measures, is in line with or exceeds that of other developed economies. Some developing economies, such as India and Korea, are increasing spending at a rate that tops the US’, but they are building from a very small base. This ensures that it will be a while before they catch up with the major players, and suggests they may run into structural limits before they get there.

While this is good to know, it won’t be long before the rest of the world catches up – as we are losing by attrition.

The US also seems to be keeping pace in terms of productivity. Although other nations are now producing a relatively greater share of total scientific publications, the publications originating in the States appear to have a higher impact, as measured by how often they’re referenced. In terms of patents jointly filed in the US, EU, and Japan, the fraction going to US-based companies has actually increased over the last 15 years. If the US is facing an R&D crisis, it’s taking its time to get here.

The report suggests that an influx of foreign students and workers has been necessary for this growth. Employment in science and technology (S&T) careers has increased by 4.2 percent since 1980, but degrees awarded in these areas have increased only by 1.5 percent annually. Those that get degrees here are likely to continue to contribute; about 70 percent of those who get a PhD in the States stay for at least two years, and probably at least 10 years. The only obvious downside of the influx of workers has been on the salaries of those in the field; nearly every graph in the RAND report suggests salaries for S&T careers have been flat for roughly 20 years in inflation-adjusted terms.

While not totally good, not totally bad – the fact that there is some positive growth in S&T degrees awarded is very good news – clearly some people are not afraid to be educated in the fields still left here in the United States. (because careers in production have gone south, or far east)

Still, not all the news is clearly good. The authors note that we really don’t have a strong sense of how having our R&D provided by foreign-born scientists will play out in the long run. The report recognizes that we need to continue to study whether this development has resulted in a flow of lucrative or sensitive technology back to other countries, and argues that we should make it easier for these researchers to stay in the US.

Or simply work hard to change the emphasis in the education system – very hard work, done very quickly – so that external, that is, resident alien, help will not be needed (as I have said before “Mr. Gates, putting some of those billions into scholarships in math, and all areas of science? You want to do something good with all that money? Time to get the greens from your jeans, or else tell that story walking.”)

More clearly negative is the fact that US students no longer view S&T careers as attractive, resulting in dramatically lower graduation rates in these areas. The data suggest that this may date back to high school education. Younger US students have performance on standardized tests of scientific topics that are in line with their international peers; by the end of public schooling, they’ve fallen behind. The report calls for improvements in the US education system to try to reverse this trend. Its authors also voice concern that, in the last several years, almost all of the increases in government-funded research have gone to biosciences, leaving the US research budget unbalanced.

Which goes back to point one – children in this country are not being well served by the education system that educates to take specific tests, not solve problems. We need to raise a generation of problem solvers, not single ended test takers – after all, those exit exams will never occur in real life.

Two other recommendations stand out. The first is to recognize that research is now truly international, and individual foci of strength will be spread throughout the globe. The US has developed mechanisms for translating research from its own academic centers to industry, but it needs to learn how to do so for research performed in other nations.

The final one is that the US government needs to establish a standing mechanism to produce evaluations of the state of S&T research in the States. The authors highlight the challenges involved in preparing their own report, and note that many past predictions (such as those of impending shortages of S&T workers) have not been accurate. In the end, it’s hard to improve a system when you don’t know if anything about it is broken.

See comment just above.

Another thing that this paper doesn’t delve into, or comment upon, is that the point of R&D is manufacture. Since there is little of that in the United States, it skews the way that any R&D is done, and allows other countries to leverage our knowledge against us – as the largest monetary gains are made in the manufacturing and distribution of product, simply fueled by the R&D that provides very modest monetary benefits.

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