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Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?
birthright. In this regard, it is useful to recall that Spain was a leading power in the 16th century; France dominated the 17th century; and England the 19th. It is also useful to remind ourselves, as economics historian Angus Maddison points out, that as late as 1870 China’s economy was nearly twice the size of the US economy. Seemingly, the only thing that stays the same in the worlds of politics and economics is the persistence of change.
The book on the 21st century is, of course, yet to be written, but if history teaches any lesson it is that no nation has an inherent right to greatness. Greatness has to be earned and continually re-earned. In fact, few nations, great or ordinary, have survived to enjoy the third century of their existence. Nations that take their technologic leadership for granted will be particularly vulnerable in this fast-moving global community in which there are said to be more scientists at work than existed throughout all prior eras combined.
Typifying our misconception of an assured position at the forefront of science and engineering is a revealing story told by Dan Goldin when he was administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It seems that he was being excoriated by a critic of NASA who objected particularly to the government’s spending on weather satellites. The skeptic asked, “Why do we need meteorologic satellites when we have the Weather Channel?”
In the same vein, former Air Force Chief Scientist and Princeton engineering professor Cort Perkins tells of sailing into Woods Hole Harbor, where he was greeted by a friend whose boat was moored in the adjacent slip. The neighbor’s fiberglass vessel was adorned with nylon lines, Dacron sails, a high-strength aluminum alloy mast capped with a radar antenna, and a bridge replete with the latest versions of GPS, depth finders, and radio equipment. Its owner, an attorney, was carrying a 10-megapixel digital camera with a stabilized lens and wearing photosensitive sunglasses. His clothing was made of synthetic fibers, and his shoes sported nonslip neoprene soles. In his pocket was a Blackberry. He cheerily greeted Professor Perkins, asking, “So have you technologists done anything for us lately?”
There have, of course, been ample indicators that the canary in the US competitiveness mine is not well. They include the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which urged more demanding high-school graduation requirements, measurable standards throughout K-12, and higher qualifications for teachers. The 1985 report of the President’s Commission on Industrial Competitiveness (also known as The Young Commission, after its chairman, Hewlett-Packard CEO John Young), Global Competition: The New Reality urged greater emphasis on science and technology and broad K-12 education reform. The Council on Competitiveness’s 2004 report Innovate