The number of science and engineering students in the United States peaked in the early 1990s. Despite substantial population growth and a big influx of foreign students, our country is producing fewer scientists and engineers. Why is this a problem? Economic growth comes from technological innovation. A lot of wealth can be skimmed off by managers, lawyers, etc. (e.g., Carly Fiorina, the CEO of HP, majored in medieval history as an undergrad) but the wealth is created to begin with by engineers and scientists.
Why don’t Americans want to study engineering and science? Look at today’s newspaper. Chances are that you’ll find stories about Shiite clerics, Islamic fundamentalism, illiterate warring tribes in Third World nations, government bureaucrats directing American forces in benighted corners of the globe, etc. These might inspire young readers to study medieval history, Islam circa 680 AD (when the Shiites began hating the Sunnis and vice versa), and law or government. But when our enemies are essentially pre-industrial it is tough to see how engineering and science could be central to American society’s needs.
It was not always so. Consider World War II, one of the fastest periods of technological innovation. Our enemies were the Japanese and Germans, who were sophisticated enough to, during WWII, develop novel communications codes (inspired the development of electronic computers), state-of-the-art airplanes (inspired the development of RADAR), state-of-the-art submarines (inspired the development of SONAR, the mapping of the seafloor, and the consequent discovery of mid-ocean ridges and therefore plate tectonics and continental drift), nuclear weapons, rockets, guidance systems, etc.
After the war our enemy was Russia and her enormous pool of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. The Russians kept us on our toes with things like their early lead in the exploration of Space.
After the Cold War we didn’t have enemies anymore (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we didn’t realize that anyone hated us). The focus changed to economic competition against the Japanese and Europeans. If you want to build cars that are as good as Honda’s you need to hire some pretty clever engineers.
Ever since September 11th we as a nation have been focussed on our Muslim enemies. They don’t invent the jet engine, like the Germans did; they buy Chinese-made copies of the Russian AK-47. They don’t build cars better than Detroit; they use Saudi oil money to buy Toyota pickup trucks. They don’t invent new military tactics (hijacking commercial airline flights was a specialty of Yasser Arafat’s PLO 30+ years ago).
At some level it makes sense to focus on our enemies. After all, our friends aren’t trying to kill us. Furthermore the population trends imply that in the long run our friends are going to fade into demographic insignificance–the groups that are most enthusiastic about killing us have among the world’s highest rates of population growth: nearly 5 percent per year for the Palestinians, 3.27 percent for the Saudis; a friendly country such as Japan grows 0.15 percent per year. Perhaps if we all study these folks carefully enough somehow we can predict when and where the next attack will come.
On the other hand, our military superiority is derived from economic growth. If our economy stagnates because our heads are stuck in the 7th Century AD, so will our military power. By contrast, if we had sufficient economic growth and technological innovation we could, for example, develop and deploy the army of robotic infantry of which a physicist friend dreams. His robots would be shaped like centaurs with the body and four legs of a horse and a human-like head and arms. The robot would have a Gatling gun in its chest. Iraqis would presumably find something to do with their time other than looting if an infantry robot were standing in front of every building in Baghdad.
Putting military conflict aside, a focus on extracting oil from Arab countries takes resources away from the purely technical challenges of producing clean and renewable energy. With sufficiently improved engineering we could run our society on wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal power. (If we really wanted to have a go at a tough engineering problem we could try making nuclear power work.) I.e., the only reason that our politicians have to spend so much time appeasing Muslim dictators is that our technology is insufficiently advanced. The point of this blog entry is that there is some circularity here. Our focus on the Muslim world, the most technologically backward portion of the globe, slows down technological development in the West and in Asia, thus forcing the modern societies to continue focusing on the Muslim world…
A new pet theory: it is human nature that we can only “Give 110 percent” and the reference is the amount of achievement being put forth by our perceived enemies or competitors. Until we shift our focus away from troubles in the Islamic world the U.S. economy will be stuck in the mud.
[Note that this blog entry does not presuppose that there is anything inherently superior in the Western way of life or Modernity itself. It is quite possible that an illiterate Afghani with 10 kids is happier than a divorced childless MIT Aero/Astro PhD.] Full post, including comments