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Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?
Members of the Academies’ competitiveness study group included the CEOs or former CEOs of several corporations, including ExxonMobil, DuPont, Intel, Merck, and Lockheed Martin; the presidents or former presidents of several universities, including Yale, Rensselaer, the University of Maryland, Texas A&M, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); three Nobel laureates; a state superintendent of schools; and several former presidential appointees, one of whom has since become secretary of defense.
The committee’s first action was to gather almost 70 subject-matter experts in Washington, DC, for a weekend of discussions. Apropos of the topic, much of the group’s work was conducted via cyberspace. The committee’s final report was anonymously critiqued by 37 reviewers selected by the Academies before its release and ultimately came to be known as the Gathering Storm report—after the first line in its title, Rising Above theGathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.
The thrust of the Academies’ findings is straightforward. First, the report concludes that individual prosperity depends predominantly on individuals having high-quality jobs. It also observes that the same is true of a nation’s collective prosperity, in that if there are few high-quality jobs, there are not likely to be sufficient tax revenues to ensure homeland security, provide health care, pay Social Security, or educate the nation’s children. Second, the report concludes that the creation of new, high-quality jobs is today disproportionately dependent on advances in science and engineering.
Eight studies conducted in recent decades indicate that public investments in science and technology have produced annualized societal returns that range from 20% to 67%. Some economists estimate that about half the nation’s growth in gross domestic product per capita during the last half-century can be attributed to scientific and engineering achievements. An assessment conducted by the Bank of Boston a decade ago concluded that research performed at MIT alone had resulted in the creation of 1.1 million jobs in 4,000 new companies. Alan Greenspan, then Federal Reserve chairman, cited innovation as the reason for significant gains in productivity growth since 1995 and told Congress: “Had the innovations of recent decades, especially in information technologies, not come to fruition, productivity growth would have continued to languish at the rate of the preceding twenty years.” In recent decades, 60-80% of all newly created jobs have been in small to medium-sized companies (with fewer than 500 employees).
Given the increasing pace of advancement in science and technology—and their close companion, innovation—it seems highly likely that these disciplines will have equal or greater impact in the decades ahead. Some 5 million researchers around the world are now at work in the pursuit of new knowledge. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of