NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 12, 2005

The grim prognosis that America's economic might is declining because we're producing a declining share of the world's scientists and engineers wrongly presumes that another country's gain must be our loss, says columnist Robert J. Samuelson.

For example, if a Swedish or Japanese company cured cancer or invented a super-efficient car, Americans would benefit quickly -- just as Swedes and Japanese have benefited from technologies first developed in the United States.

Indeed, the United States still dominates global research and development, says Samuelson:

  • In 1981 American companies and laboratories accounted for 45 percent of research and development among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which are generally the world's richest nations.
  • In 2000 the U.S. share was still 44 percent -- despite the increase in other countries' scientists and engineers and a decline in U.S. defense research and development.

We must be doing something right, he says. Our decentralized research and development system excels at moving ideas to market and constantly reinvents itself. Here's an example:

  • In 1980 Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act to encourage universities to license discoveries to companies.
  • It worked because in 2002 universities earned $915 million from licensing fees, almost four times the 1993 level, according to economists Richard Jensen and Celestine Chukumba of Notre Dame University.

What's crucial is sustaining our technological vitality. Despite the pay, America seems to have ample scientists and engineers. But half or more of new scientific and engineering Ph.D.s are immigrants; we need to remain open to foreign-born talent. We need to maintain spectacular rewards for companies that succeed in commercializing new products and technologies. Finally, we must scour the world for good ideas. No country ever had a monopoly on new knowledge, and none ever will, says Samuelson.

Source: Robert J. Samuelson, "It's Not a Science Gap (Yet)," Washington Post, August 10, 2005.

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