In today’s Sunday paper a favorite economics columnist of
mine, Tappan Monroe, commented on the growing economic power of China and
India. I like him because he’s a pretty sober economist who doesn’t seem to
have any particular political agenda behind his remarks. I’ll quote a bit
because I suspect the article will disappear into the newspaper’s archives
pretty soon.

In the past several years, the world economy has been experiencing
fundamental changes that are likely to reshape our lives profoundly in the
coming years. This has to do with the rise of two countries that are home to
nearly 40 percent of the world’s population, China and India.

Monroe then cites all-too-familiar figures about the growth
of GDP of these countries, their strengths in manufacturing and computer
technology, and the large numbers of well educated people in their big
populations. He also acknowledges the big problems these countries have with
the distribution of wealth, lousy infrastructure, etc. Then he concludes:

The answer for the United States does not lie in retaliation or trade war.
Our salvation lies in massive investment in our human infrastructure —
education (particularly science and technology), training, research and
development, and maintaining the excellence of our colleges.

We must pay attention to technology commercialization from our think tanks
and university laboratories, make every effort to attract the best and
brightest people to our businesses and universities and finally take the
realities of the highly competitive global economy seriously. Today, China and
India produce many more engineers than we do. We cannot waste any time — it takes
a good 15 years to train a good engineer. We have to innovate continuously,
create new products and services better than others, and that will take some
doing in this highly competitive global economy.

Is any of this particularly new? No. That’s the problem.
I’ve been reading about all of this for at least the past five years. Before
this blog existed I harassed people with emails containing articles and
expressions of my concern about the future competitiveness of the US. My
continuing concern—nay, alarm—is that, although there’s nothing new about this,
I still don’t see anything being done about it on a national scale. Although
outsourcing was kicked around during the 2004 election campaign, I can’t think
of anything that has come out of Washington since then that specifically
addresses the need to support first-rate science education and all the
innovation everybody says we need. (If I’m wrong, please remind me.) Can we
just continue to talk about it? Monroe’s comments suggest that any national
initiative will take years to bear fruit.

So what can we do? Since it appears that identifying a
“culture of …” this or that is all the rage these days, I call for a “culture
of innovation” in the US. I’m pleased the Society has a Futuring and Innovation
Center and that FISpace is a part of it. My personal view is that all
organizations, not just computer and biotech companies, could be stimulating
and rewarding innovation and change. Even in the Society we could do more to
break down inertia and resistance that impedes new ideas and ways. The ACS can
be a contributor to an overall spirit of change that enables America to thrive
in the coming century.