When Science Flees the U.S.

The trend could have ominous consequences.

By David Baltimore
David Baltimore won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for his research in virology, in 1975. He has been president of Caltech since 1997.

Los Angeles Times

November 29, 2004

The United States is the richest nation on Earth, the world's biggest beneficiary of the global economy. But will it last?

Not that long ago, the "global economy" meant that routine factory jobs were going overseas. The unions squawked, but others recognized that the U.S. could concentrate on high- value-added commerce: discovery, innovation, high-technology manufacturing, knowledge-based industries. And we've done very well developing technology and growing our economic base in these areas. So well, in fact, that such development seems like an auto-catalytic process or a "virtuous cycle" that will continue propelling us forward for generations.

But the system is overtaking us. We no longer have a lock on technology. Europe is increasingly competitive, and Asia has the potential to blow us out of the water.

In the last 20 years, many of the students in American universities who majored in the sciences and engineering came from Asia. Today, significant numbers are staying in Asia because the schooling there is so improved, and because we have made it harder to study here. And Asian scientists who have been successful here are returning home. None of this is lost on the governments of, say, India and China, which are putting huge sums into modernizing their science infrastructure and universities.

The proof of their success is the number of U.S. companies opening laboratories in China. Intel and Cisco are leading the way, and many others are seriously looking at the possibility. Wages there are a third of wages here, and some estimate that the cost of employing an engineer in China is as little as a tenth of the cost of employing the same person in the U.S.

But the key is not only cost. These companies have found that the Asian workers are as good as ours, as imaginative as ours — and they work longer hours and are more dedicated.

Where does all this leave the U.S., a nation with so many who are poorly educated and whose educational system does a particularly ineffective job with math and science. We have more people who believe in the devil than who believe in evolution. Why?

There are so many reasons I can call out only a few. One is lack of federal leadership in funding schooling that emphasizes math and science, another is our fragmented educational system that leaves so much to local control, another is general anti-intellectualism and the cult of the sound bite. But I think that the major failure is our inability as parents to pass on our culture to our children.

I say "inability" because I truly believe that parents want to do better but do not know how. One reason is the downgrading of family life in the two-wage-earner home, another is the speed with which technology changes how kids spend their lives and how people communicate; yet another is a lack of will when it comes to imposing discipline on children. And one that particularly galls me is the denigration of the word "stress."

When I grew up, we worked hard, played hard and never thought to minimize our activities because of stress. Sure, people were under stress and some cracked under it, but leading a "stressful" life was honored because of the accomplishments that could be achieved by those who could handle it. Today we deify the spa, not late hours solving problems at school or work. Caltech's high-achieving faculty and students are seen as weirdos because of their intense focus, but even here, some graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are seeking a more balanced life.

Now, what are the implications of all this? If technology is done well and more cheaply abroad, we will either have to seriously reduce salaries here or see the technology-intensive jobs go abroad. If technologists continue to be plentiful in foreign countries, wages there will only rise. Demand could fall at home, which would further drive down wages here.

This will have huge implications for our domestic industries as Asians open their own companies. The harbinger is Taiwan, whose citizens we have been training for decades and where many competitive industries already exist. And Taiwan is a small island with only 20 million people. China, an entrepreneurial powerhouse in the formative stages, has 1.3 billion.

So the cascade could begin: If America becomes a less affluent society, we will see a diminution in support for the research that is critical to our future. There are already clouds on the horizon: because of the deficit, federal budgets will get tighter and science funding is likely to suffer. The economic recovery is generating too few jobs. Silicon Valley still has lots of vacant space. The venture capital industry is scared and conservative.

These trends are real. We cannot afford to ignore them. We must think deeply about the realities we face. We need to respond to the newest challenges of globalism. A fortress-America approach will get us nowhere.