Summit highlights vulnerability in US education, research


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Denise Brehm
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Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Citing a weak talent pool as the greatest threat to the nation's future in the international marketplace, members of the Council on Competitiveness overwhelmingly agreed last Friday that K-12 education must be overhauled if the United States is to remain a leader in innovation.

The Council, made up of leaders from industry, academia and government, held a National Innovation Summit at the Tang Center on March 12-13 to focus attention on how the nation can avoid lapsing into complacency and falling behind its international competitors. MIT President Charles Vest, university vice chair of the Council, hosted the event, which proved to be an agreeable exception to the maxim that too many cooks spoil the broth. Remarkably, this group of national leaders appeared to reach consensus early on about the biggest problem faced by the nation.

After the Cold War, the United States began to lose sight of the importance of a strong foundation in -- and dedication to -- science and technology, Dr. Vest said. "We tend to respond best to crises, but this time, we must set a new course before another crisis strikes," he said. "One sine qua non is a strong, continued investment in basic science and engineering research and education."

K-12 EDUCATION TOUTED

At a governor's round table on Thursday evening, Gov. Engler said one of the most important components needed to ensure future competitiveness is a well-educated talent pool upon which industry can draw.

"The state with the best schools wins," he said. "The education skill level of the workforce is the most serious hurdle of the next decade. The quality of elementary and secondary schools is a disgrace. Our public schools must do better."

The governors cited charter schools as a way to break the "monopoly" of K-12 public education. "Our higher education system is world-class because of intense competition. Public schools lag because there is no competition. They are mired in bureaucracy," said Gov. John Engler of Michigan, who pointed to a charter school funded by the Ford Motor Co. as a good example of forging ties between industry and education. "This is just one example of the kind of innovation in the educational arena that can make a difference," he said.

Georgia Gov. Zell Miller said he has attacked the problem by developing "a culture of higher expectations." A far-reaching state-sponsored scholarship program based on merit ensures that students with an average of B or better can attend state schools virtually for free and get scholarships to private instititions. So far, 300,000 people have received the benefit of $500 million in scholarships through what he called "Georgia's GI Bill."

Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci said the Massachusetts success story of bringing down record unemployment and raising an embarassingly low bond rating has restored fiscal stability to the state.

"The last thing we are doing is improving our public schools. I don't think anything we are doing in state government is more important," Cellucci said. He said he will stand firm on new state regulations that call for students to pass standardized tests before they can graduate from high school.

PERRY OFFERS PERSPECTIVE

At Friday morning's plenary session, William J. Perry, the Secretary of Defense from 1994-97, called for a return to the national emphasis on science education that preceded the Cold War. Also on Friday morning, Vice President Al Gore gave the keynote address (see story on page 1).

While the US Department of Defense was once the primary supporter of the commercial sector, with the demise of the Cold War and its hefty defense budgets, "the Defense Department is forced to ride on the shoulders of commercial industry," Dr. Perry said. A 1997 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he now holds the Berberian chair in engineering, operations research and international studies at Stanford University.

Echoing the sentiment of the governors who spoke earlier, Dr. Perry said, "While American universities are the best in the world, our public schools are the worst. Overseas students are better prepared in science and math. Science education should be our highest national priority."

He pointed out while America currently leads the pack in information technology and the aersopace industry, American industry was not always the envy of the world. "America was an also-ran in science��������������������������� until scientists seeking to escape fascism arrived on our shores. They stayed and trained a new generation."

Then, with the advent of the Cold War, the desire to offset Soviet ground forces with high-tech weaponry led to an emphasis on defense technology that continued through Desert Storm. This technology in turn spawned a new set of products for home and industry.

Japan rose as a serious competitor 10 years ago, and although the US auto industry countered the attack by adopting Japanese production and management techniques, America still has not regained the consumer electronics market.

But Japan's government-driven strategy of concentrating industry resources on memory chips, artificial intelligence computers and high-definition TV missed the boat on information technology.

"The Japanese companies bet on the wrong horses," Dr. Perry said. "Information technology companies in the US concentrated on microprocessors for increasingly versatile workstations and computers and telecommunications software. That provided a competitive advantage across the board."

For now, the United States needs to maintain a position of world leadership among technical universities to produce a fresh wave of scientists and engineers trained in information technology.

"An entrepreneurial spirit, a strong market for risk capital and our great American universities should be able to sustain us in the future, but we must value them and nurture them," he said.

U.S. LEAD IS SLIPPING

While the United States leads the world in numbers of international patents issued per capita -- a pretty good indicator of innovative success -- its lead is now threatened by other countries, said Michael E. Porter, the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Professor Porter, who has led bench-marking initiatives for the Council on Competitiveness for the past decade, presented the results of his research on developing a model to predict a nation's future innovative success at the summit.

The US took second place to Japan once, and now countries such as Denmark, Finland and Germany, as well as longtime competitors like Switzerland and Germany, are catching up, and Taiwan, South Korea, Israel and Singapore are also making strides into the big leagues as innovation centers.

The peaks and valleys representing countries' rates of success in Professor Porter's model come from those countries' efforts to create the right conditions for innovation. These are "investments we are choosing to make and not make," such as investment in R&D and education, he said. "America is not making the investments in fundamentals the model tells us we have to do."

Professor Porter has devised a way to measure a country's success at innovation as well as its likelihood to succeed in the future. By looking at numbers of international patents -- which are related to exports of goods and services as well as factors such as level of government, industry and university spending on research and development, money spent on secondary and tertiary education, and emphasis on protection of intellectual property -- he has ranked 17 industrialized countries over time.

"The United States remains a leader, but we're competing with more countries who are rapidly improving," Dr. Porter said. "There are some danger signs. We don't spend much on secondary education. The number of US engineering graduate students is fewer than foreign students, and going down at a time when the economy is growing.

"We have to produce unique products that cannot be produced elsewhere. We have to be a moving target as a nation to fight product profusion" as other countries come up with cheaper imitations of popular products.

"We appear to be living more and more off of our historical assets. I think it's time for a new consensus around the importance of innovation -- a new strategy different from the previous Department of Defense-driven strategy. We need to figure out what this is and get it implemented."

MARKET-DRIVEN EDUCATION

Later on Friday, summit participants broke into five working groups, each of which was charged with identifying the most important of five key factors: national talent pool, research base, capital availability, national market vitality and international market access.

The consensus of those groups was that improving the national talent pool (K-12 education and workforce preparation) should be the most immediate priority, followed by the need to maintain a strong research base, defined by number of patents and amount of R&D spending, said John Young, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and founder of the Council, who announced the results of the breakout sessions. He suggested that measurements, testing and accountability could be used to set up a market-driven education system to replace the present "bureaucratic monopoly."

US Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), vice chair of the House Science Committee, reminded the group that the nation is doing well now "because our parents and grandparents were willing to invest in science research." He cautioned that the public's apathy toward science must be taken seriously. "It's almost fashionable to profess ignorance of science," he said.

Other speakers included Rep. James Sen-senbrenner (R-WI), chair of the House Science committee, who encouraged Council members to "spread the gospel" on the need for science spending; Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who reiterated the need for a commitment to spending on children, as well as research; corporate CEOs including George Fisher of Eastman Kodak, and university presidents including Gerhard Casper of Stanford.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who spoke late in the day on Friday, commented, "All the reasons have been laid on the table. No new study is needed" to point out the nation's weakness. He added, to a round of laughter, "It's that time of the day when everything has been said, but not everyone has said it."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 18, 1998.


Topics: Education, teaching, academics, National relations and service, Special events and guest speakers

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