This report from Bloomberg News enunciates the real challenge facing President Biden. America is no longer the world’s most innovative nation. That distinction goes to South Korea. In fact, America dropped out of the Top 10, entirely:
The top ten are South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Israel, Finland, the Netherlands and Austria.
America, the report says, “scores badly in higher education, even though U.S. universities are world-famous. That underperformance was likely made worse by obstacles to foreign students, who are usually prominent in science and technology classes — first due to the Trump administration’s visa policies, and later to the pandemic … [but] … President Joe Biden ran on a promise to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing with a $300 billion investment in R&D and breakthrough technologies, a policy he labeled “Innovate in America.”” My fear is that it will look for short term gains rather than at correcting the structural defects, which include, as in Canada, primary and secondary education system that lack rigour. The reason that American and Canadian universities rely too heavily on foreign (mostly Asian) students to fill the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programmes is that native born Americans and Canadians, educated in American and Canadian schools are unable (academically unprepared) to face the university level STEM curricula. They are not stupid children but they are being “educated” by a system that rewards everything except learning.
One problem, for President Biden, is that, as in Canada, education is a state rather than federal responsibility, but the fact that, as in Canada, all the sates have sub-standard educations systems means that it is a societal problem. Why can the National University of Singapore be full of bright young Singaporeans and the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) be filled with bright young Israelis but institutions like MIT and Waterloo need to go searching for foreign students to fill their programmes? It isn’t government policy. It is a societal problem.
The excuse that we, Americans and Canadians, specially, have been using is that “we are creative,” while the Singaporeans and South Koreans are, presumably, just like insects in a hive, reciting calculus equations, and a strong focus on “basics” is unfair to some and we must, above all, be equitable, even if the next Apple will be invented by kids named Kim and Wang, rather than Jobs and Wozniak. Being “creative” doesn’t mean being unable to create technology, or build aqueducts and great cathedrals. Being really “creative” means being
good better best and maths and science.
This is not a progressive vs liberal issue. (By which, in the 21st century, we really mean Conservative ~ the small l in liberal matters a lot.) Nor is it a provincial or state vs federal issue. The traditionally progressive West got a swift kick in the pants in 1957 when Sputnik 1 began orbiting. Americans, Australians, Brits, Canadians and Danes all perceived that we had, somehow, fallen behind the shambolic USSR, and in one important aspect we had. It was NOT that the Soviets had smarter pople or a better education system, they didn’t, what they had was a focus on one aim: military superiority. But that perception of weakness spurred the US-led West to reinvigorate ghe STEM programmes in elementary and high schools and in universities and that’s what led to burst of “creativity” that led to Apple and Google and Microsoft and so on.
But things have changed. While Soviet Russia was (and remains) unable to match the US-led West in the full range of educational achievements, modern Asian nations have learned from Russia’s mistakes. Today, countries like China, India, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan are producing enough high-school graduates who are, academically, ready and able to face the rigours of the best STEM programmes in their own countries and in American, Australian, British and Canadian universities, too. That’s a good thing; it would be an ever better thing if American, Australian, British and Canadian high schools did the same; they don’t. Too many universities in Austin, Boston, Cambridge, Palo Alto, Sydney, Toronto and Wellington rely too heavily on Asian students, graduate and undergrad, too, to fill all the places in their STEM programmes. It isn’t just the Asian money that these Western universities want and need, it is the students ~ without enough Asian students (and e.g. recently immigrated Asian-Canadian students) their STM programmes will wither and die. Everyone, including e.g. Alberta’s education minister Adriana LaGrange, my old (1960s) Army buddy and now Queen’s University Chancellor Jim Leech, and Canada’s newly minted Deputy Minister of Finance Michael Sabia …
… knows that we, as a country and as a society, need to be scientifically “self sufficient,” and so do their counterparts in Amsterdam, Berlin, Canberra, Dublin, London, Washington and Wellington. But, for a a whole hockey-sock full of reasons we, as Western nations ~ it’s not just a North American problem ~ and as societies, are unwilling and unable to pull together and address what should be an international priority.
We need to be better innovators. I am convinced that, sooner rather than later, Austria, Finland and the Netherlands will fall off Bloomberg‘s ‘top 10’ list and will be replaced by China, India and Japan. But the only way we can take the lead, again, in innovation is to recognize and accept that not every snowflake is special and there is that old bell curve …
… which says that while not all of us are going to be homeless addicts, a lot fewer of us will ever win the Nobel Prize in Physics. The problem with the bell curve is that it is a very accurate reflection of the real world and hopes and dreams and unicorn farts will not alter it. We, as societies must deal with it.
The problem is NOT that Asia is doing well; in fact, that’s a good thing given that 60% of the people in the world live there. The problem is that too much of the other 40% is not keeping up. That problem societal rather than political. It is true that most Conservatives recognize the problem and want to solve it while most progressives (Liberals and NDP, in Canada) want to appease vocal minsoritis who demand identity politics, The real, big problem is that too many people have accepted the über-progressive argument that Accountants should be Aboriginal and Bankers should be Black and Physicians should be Polynesian to provide redress for ancient grievances ~ but, perhaps, the majority has “accepted” the notions just to make the shouting stop. Whatever the reason, Western society needs to return to a merit-based system which recognizes that good plumbers are as valuable as good physicians and we don’t need everyone to be an accountant, a chemist or and engineer but we do need to graduate enough of them to make us in technologically innovative society.
There are, really, two issues here:
- First, restoring the dignity of honest work; and
- Second, rewarding merit, not identity.
Both need to be addressed, in tandem, by social and political leaders, for the sake of our country’s and our society’s future.