February 06, 2006

National competitiveness in science

from - RSA

In a Washington post column, Sebasian Mallaby tells the science lobby (I'm not exactly sure who that is) that concerns about our national competitiveness in the sciences are overblown. He makes some good points and presents an optimistic picture for the future, but he gets a few things wrong.

Science and math advocates have been harrumphing about national competitiveness for at least a quarter-century. In the early 1980s the National Science Foundation predicted "looming shortfalls" of scientists and engineers, . . .

Part of the shortfall issue is that the proportion of students in graduate science and engineering programs who are U.S. citizens has not been impressive in the past few decades. In 2003, for example, some 55% of the Ph.D.s awarded in engineering went to foreign students with temporary visas. One aspect of the shortfall is that the influx of good foreign graduate students is not really under our control; as of 2001, visa problems for foreign students skyrocketed. Is this a problem for our national technology engine? Hard to tell, but it's a possibility certainly not to be dismissed.

There's no dividing wall between academic labs and commerce, and scientists surf from one world to the other on waves of money and cultural approval.

A couple of years ago my students and I published a short paper describing an interaction technqique to speed up text entry on mobile communications devices. A company became interested, and we collaborated for a few months, with a view toward putting together a new, possibly niche product. Eventually, however, we discovered an extremely broad patent had been granted to one of the giants in the mobile technology field. It wasn't clear that what we were doing could work around the boundaries they'd established. All fine and good---but do we see the technique described in the paper my students and I wrote? Nope.

There may be only weak barriers between academic labs and industry, but they certainly exist, and they're not to the benefit of consumers, at least in the small picture.

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Posted by RSA at February 6, 2006 10:41 AM
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