Surveying US dominance in science and technology for the Secretary of Defense

The global higher education and research landscape is a fast changing one at this point in history. Amongst many indicators we have increasingly powerful players (e.g., Kaplan, Thomson Reuters), new interregional and global imaginaries starting to generate broad effects (e.g., via the global dimensions of the Bologna Process), a series of coordinated multi-university attempts to create action on what some stakeholders deem “global challenges” (e.g., see The Global Colloquium of University Presidents), and a recent US-based attempt to create ostensibly global higher education action for global development.

On this latter initiative, deemed the Higher Education Summit for Global Development, I can’t help but think that the cost to organize and operate such a ‘summit’ was significant when compared to the related announcement of “$1 million [644,000 euro] to fund 20 partnership-planning grants of $50,000 to plan long-term collaborations between African and U.S. institutions of higher education“. Money of that scale is characteristically snatched from a dormant account inside some department to produce a ‘deliverable’ and seems somewhat incommensurate (in material and symbolic terms) with the stated ambition of the event, even if it is just the marker of a new phase of action.

The pace of globally-framed higher education and research change was abundantly clear to me last week when I was in Brussels (pictured to the left) meeting with a wide variety of informed and creative stakeholders; stakeholders who are actively creating elements of this new global higher ed/research architecture. The combination of insight and resources was impressive, and another reminder of what happens when states focus on building intellectual infrastructure for the medium to long term.

In this context, today’s entry briefly profiles one new contribution to challenging dominant views on the status quo of thinking about aspects of the globalization of higher education and research, though from the other side of the Atlantic – in the USA.

On 12 June the Rand Corporation released a major report titled U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology. The associated press release can be accessed here, and a summary Research Brief here.

This new report is a 2008 “companion report” to the 2007 collection, Perspectives on U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology, in which we flagged the Rand Corporation’s inclusion of one chapter by Jonathon Adams, a UK-based private consultant whose firm (Evidence Ltd) provides services in relation to the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology presents findings that challenge notions of a slide in the dominance of the United States in the global science and technology landscape, especially with respect to research. In summary fashion, Rand notes:

Is the United States in danger of losing its competitive edge in science and technology (S&T)? This concern has been raised repeatedly since the end of the Cold War, most recently in a wave of reports in the mid-2000s suggesting that globalization and the growing strength of other nations in S&T, coupled with inadequate U.S. investments in research and education, threaten the United States’ position of leadership in S&T. Galama and Hosek [the Rand authors] examine these claims and contrast them with relevant data, including trends in research and development investment; information on the size, composition, and pay of the U.S. science and engineering workforce; and domestic and international education statistics. They find that the United States continues to lead the world in science and technology and has kept pace or grown faster than other nations on several measurements of S&T performance; that it generally benefits from the influx of foreign S&T students and workers; and that the United States will continue to benefit from the development of new technologies by other nations as long as it maintains the capability to acquire and implement such technologies. However, U.S. leadership in science and technology must not be taken for granted, and Galama and Hosek conclude with recommendations to strengthen the U.S. S&T enterprise, including measures to facilitate the immigration of highly skilled labor and improve the U.S. education system.

Coverage of the report is now emerging in outlets like the Economist, in the general media, and in the blogosphere (e.g., see this critique of the Rand message in the Computing Research Policy blog)

U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology is also noteworthy for it is produced by Rand for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), a relatively sprawling institution as is evident in this organizational diagram:

As the inside page to the report puts it:

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted in the RAND National Defense Research Institute [NDRI], a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community under Contract W74V8H-06-C-0002.

The logic of the OSD funding NDRI-produced research likely relates to the US defense establishment’s concern about emerging science and technology (and research) ‘footprints’ of powers like China, India, and Europe vis a vis intra-US capacities to educate, produce knowledge, and have this knowledge disseminated (and generate effects) at a range of scales and via a variety of channels. Yet the report also seeks to use data and analytical narratives to prick holes in the emerging taken-for-granted assumptions that the era of American hegemony, with respect to global knowledge production, is over. It reminds me, a little, of the informed testimony of Michael S. Teitelbaum, Vice President, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, on 6 November 2007 before the Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives. Finally, the report is very clear in flagging the dependency of US science and technology capacity, and the US’ global research presence/impact, upon highly educated foreigners.

In an overall sense, then, U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology could be read as a detailed and insightful contribution to ongoing deliberations about the scale of US science and technology might, and an effort to reshape the contours of a critically important debate. I’m not sure if it could be classified as a contribution to thinking about “war by other means”, but rather as a reflection of a “new threat environment ” where thinking and analysis focuses on:

[h]ow and in what way do new challenges–from terrorists, insurgents, weapons of mass destruction, and the proliferation of technology–that the United States faces at home and abroad color America´s definition of and approach to national security? How will changes in the international economic, diplomatic, political, and alliance environments affect U.S. interests and capabilities? How will those changes and threats–from states, non–states, and other traditional and non–traditional sources– affect the United States´ ability to engage and project its power?

Regardless of the logics behind it, the report is thought provoking, laden with data and well designed graphic images, and is clearly written.

Finally, readership. I can imagine the current Secretary of Defense quite enjoying this read given that he was most recently President of Texas A&M University, and “also served on the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of the American Council on Education” and “the Board of Directors of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges”. I am not as sure about the previous one, though. If he is still on the OSD mailing list perhaps he’ll be perusing the text for indicators of the declining health of “old Europe”!

Kris Olds

29 June update: This letter to the Economist (26 June 2008) is worth reading:

SIR – Referring to the conclusions of a RAND report on research and development in science and technology, you claimed that fears that America is losing its competitive edge in innovation are “overblown” (“What crisis?”, June 14th). Your evidence is that “America has lots of sources of R&D spending: federal money accounted for only $86 billion of the $288 billion it spent on R&D in 2004” and that “spending on the life sciences is increasing rapidly, a reasonable bet on the future.” The important point to be made here is that the composition of American R&D has changed markedly over the years.

Federal support for basic research at universities in the physical sciences and engineering—the type of research most directly coupled to technological innovation—has withered relative to spending on research in the life sciences and R&D carried out by industry. The increase in privately financed product-development (often the D in R&D) and biomedical research are both good, but neglecting basic research investments of the type that gave us the internet, solid-state electronics and medical imaging is not a recipe for future success.

Given that it typically takes 15 years for new ideas dreamed up in the laboratory to become commercial, America may be losing the technology race even while seeming to remain on top. At the very least, America’s relative position in the world is slipping, which bodes ill for the future economic standing of the United States.

George Scalise
Semiconductor Industry Association
San Jose, California