Americans have always possessed an odd combination of fear and faith, two qualities that worked together to create a nation of stunning progress in a short amount of time. Says Stanford University historian Joseph Corn: "Americans have been very comfortable with seeing themselves going to hell in a handbasket, which goes along with a breast-beating fury about how great they are." What's different today, he maintains, is a creeping doubt about our strengths, much of which comes from the belief on the part of current students that they will not be as well off as their parents. Corn says he finds it strange that 20-year-old students are worrying about whether they'll be able to afford a house.
Part of that fear stems from the fact that Europe and Asia are graduating record numbers of science and engineering students hungry for the same jobs Americans used to feel were their birthright. In 2000, Asian universities accounted for nearly 1.2 million science and engineering degrees, compared to 850,000 in Europe and 500,000 in North America, according to the NSF. And in 2001, more than half the science and engineering postdoctoral positions in the U.S. were held by foreign-born scholars.
But does it really matter how many science and engineering students a country graduates? It does when those students stay at home and start producing. Patent applications in China, India, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have been ballooning, growing more than sevenfold between 1989 and 2001. During that same time, the U.S. increased its patent portfolio by only 116 percent.
Ask Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., what he thinks is wrong with education in America, and you get an earful of anger. "America has a really strong anti-intellectual streak," he fumes. "We're celebrating the bubbas, the superstitious and the ignorant," he continues, citing reality TV shows like American Chopper and Kansas's mock trial of evolution as evidence.
In the academic community, the mood is decidedly dour, almost fatalistic. "It's inevitable," says Langdon Winner, a professor of humanities and social sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, when asked whether the U.S. will be surpassed in technology innovation. "The U.S. graduates about 70,000 engineers at present, while China aims to graduate half a million a year for the foreseeable future."
Many academics complain of a lack of vision and leadership from the highest levels in the country. And most quickly point to shortsighted policy decisions, particularly in the area of embryonic stem-cell research. Since the Bush administration's ban on the use of federal funds to work with any embryonic stem-cell lines created after August 9, 2001, prominent scientists have left the U.S. to go to places like Britain and Singapore in the quest to decode the secrets of hundreds of hard-to-treat diseases. Normally, the federal government would be a major backer of this kind of early-stage research, helping to propel the U.S. to the next frontier of science and medicine. But on moral grounds, the Bush administration has limited what it will fund.
Saffo sees the stem-cell debate as the bellwether for our future. "I live in fear that the neocons are going to pass an out-and-out ban on stem-cell research," he says. "And that will be the death knell" for the U.S. as an innovator.