Dallas, each year enough new information (of all types) goes into storage somewhere in the world to equal 37,000 Libraries of Congress. Former President Bill Clinton observed that “where once nations measured their strength by the size of their armies and arsenals, in the world of the future knowledge will matter most.”
The leaders of other nations are unlikely to overlook the ubiquitous impact of investment in science and technology. For example, of China’s top nine leaders, eight are engineers, the other a geologist. In contrast, in the United States, the number of members of the most recent 435-member House of Representatives who listed their field as “engineering” was three, the same number who categorized themselves as “actors or artists.” As for scientists, none was to be found in the Senate, but representation in the House recently ballooned to five.
At last year’s multiday meeting of China’s National Academies of Science and Engineering, China’s President Hu, the prime minister, and all the members of the Politburo were present for most of the meeting. It has been observed that President Hu, who in his address to the gathering referred to China as “an innovation-driven nation,”could have taken most of the actions he proposed directly from the US National Academies’ report. Some years earlier, Deng Xiaoping abruptly dismissed any ideologic debate that might be prompted by China’s commitment to scientific and engineering competition in a free market, noting that “it doesn’t matter if it’s a black cat or a white cat. As long as it can catch mice, it’s a good cat!”
Indeed, in 2006, China announced a 15-year plan—that it termed “medium- to long-term”—for the further development of science and technology. The plan calls for increasing the contribution of science and technology to equal 60% of the country’s overall economic growth by the end of the period. Contrast that approach with that of America’s government, which generally considers “long-term” to mean 5 years, or America’s industry, which too often considers “long-term” to mean anything beyond the next quarter.
But it is not simply America’s economy that depends on the nation’s prowess in science and engineering. In fact, many of the demanding challenges facing the country today will require advances in science and engineering, including challenges in providing health care, supplying energy, protecting the environment, ensuring homeland security, finding and providing water, and maintaining a vibrant economy. Paul Peercy, chair of the Engineering Deans Council of the American Society for Engineering Education, observed, “I used to say ‘Look around, everything except the plants is engineered.’ Now I say, ‘Look around, everything and some of the plants are engineered.’”