This Week's Herman Trend Alert

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  The Herman Trend Alert

June 23, 2004

Innovation Talent Bank at Risk

America's vital research and development is at risk; the country's share of global degrees in the innovation fields (both baccalaureate and graduate) is declining. Long- term shifts are likely in the share of global talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In a recent report to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Microsoft Executive Vice President Robert Herbold said the Council's Subcommittee on Science and Engineering Workforce/Education believes that this increasing relative shortage of talent is only one component of a larger issue: "protecting the nation's innovation ecosystem." This system, he said, comprises a mix of factors including research universities, research and development centers, government funded research, the venture capital industry, and the free enterprise system; "things that other countries salivate for."

Herbold presented data indicating that foreign countries producing significantly more science and engineering graduates typically have low wages, attracting research investment and numerous jobs. Until the standard of living in those countries rises substantially, this disparity will cause some U.S. companies to outsource jobs to those countries to remain competitive. This trend has already begun, moving off-shoring beyond routine tasks to innovative work.

Raising the specter of shortages in America's innovation workforce is a sensitive issue. Herbold suggests that the question instead should be whether the nation's talent base is "adequate" to maintain the health of its innovation ecosystem. Trends in degree production among U.S. citizens, he declared, was "alarming."

The subcommittee recommended strengthening K-12 science and math curricula, encouraging alternative teacher certification, using vouchers, supporting charter schools, and making the teaching profession more attractive. The subcommittee also urged universities to seek creative ways to retain student interest in these fields, develop alternate degree programs like a professional master's, and shorten the time to a PhD. They recommended establishing a program of fellowships to attract more U.S. citizens to innovation careers.

Efforts should also be undertaken, the subcommittee recommended, to encourage foreign students to remain in the United States after graduation in science and technology fields. This achievement would slow the "brain drain" of innovative talent to other countries at the expense of the United States.

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