Eight of the nine top Chinese government officials are scientists. This same sort of ratio is found at all levels of the Chinese government.

Did you know that the president of China is a scientist? President Hu Jintao was trained as a hydraulic engineer. Likewise his Premier, Wen Jiabao, is a geomechanical engineer. In fact, 8 out of China’s top 9 government officials are scientists. What does the scientific prominence atop China’s ruling body say, if anything, about the role of science and technology in China's ability to compete against the U.S. and the world in terms of innovation and economic might?

Quick, name a scientist member of your government’s top offices.

That’s a tough one if you’re an American, as out of the 535 members of the U.S. Congress, only 22 have science or engineering backgrounds, and of these only two might be considered experienced scientists or engineers. As an American myself, I guess that would explain why I tend to assume all politicians were lawyers in their previous lives.

You have to be pretty popular to get elected, so should we conclude that Chinese people in general look up to and admire their scientists? Former CEO of Lockheed Martin, Norm Augustine, writes in Forbes that that’s exactly the case–and not only in China: “...scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They’re not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S.”

Okay, fine. We’re weird for not thinking pocket-protectors are sexy. But a country that doesn’t think science is cool raises children who don’t think science is cool. The most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA; 2010) showed that 15-year olds in the U.S. perform average in reading and science skills and below average in math compared to 15-year olds in other countries. Thirty-four countries were assessed in all by the PISA test, considered to be the most comprehensive of its type. Out of those 34 the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.

China’s 15-year olds also took the test. They ranked 1st, 1st, and 1st.

Actually, the test in China was performed by city and the top placings were earned by Shanghai, not China as a whole. But don't think the scores are an anomaly. Coming in second place for math was Singapore; third, Hong Kong.

Anybody got a spitball?

Societies such as that found in China emphasize academic excellence, often to the detriment of creative development and individual expression.

I’ll admit it, I’m jealous. The U.S. has the greatest academic institutions in the world, but our children are finding it increasingly more difficult to enter their hallowed halls–or at least their science departments. Bill Gates, a guy who knows a little about technology, wrote a wonderful piece in the Washington Post outlining his concerns about current U.S. trends: “Half of this country’s doctoral candidates in computer science come from abroad. It’s not in our national interest to educate them here but send them home when they’ve completed their studies.” As recently reported in Forbes, 70% of engineers with PhD’s from U.S. universities are foreign-born. Part of the problem is a waning interest among Americans for technical degrees. The journal Science reports that the U.S. ranks “60th [among world nations] in the proportion of college graduates receiving natural science and engineering degrees.”

So how do these stats from academia translate in the ‘real’ world? The Forbes article listed these trends:

-In 2009, for the first time, over half of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.
-Between 1996 and 1999, 157 new drugs were approved in the U.S. From 1999 to 2009, that number has dropped to 74.
-China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s number one high-technology exporter.

Pretty harrowing if you’re concerned about U.S. competitiveness, not so harrowing if you think worldwide technological development is a good thing. Identifying with the former, the National Academies–essentially the Who’s Who of U.S. scientists–have in recent years written a manifesto detailing their thoughts regarding the future intersection of U.S. technology and economic competitiveness. Its title, “The Gathering Storm,” leaves little doubt as to how the country’s best scientists stand. It’s a doomsday depiction of what’s in store for the U.S. if we don’t step up our STEM game; that is, if we don’t both promote interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and do a better job teaching the subjects to our children. The argument, based on the types of data I included above, is essentially: 1. Compared to the rest of the world we’re getting dumber in STEM; 2. Strength in STEM enables innovation; 3. From innovation springs economic competitiveness; 4. We will eventually be outcompeted if we don’t fix 1.

Scientific recommendations in the past have often met resistance on Capitol Hill and with certain sects of society, but “The Gathering Storm” got a lot of attention. Many states acted on the Storm’s recommendations, influential members of the private sector formed an organization specifically to address many of the concerns raised, George W. Bush’s America COMPETES Act was signed into law in 2007. Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, deemed it “a new New Deal urgently called for by our times.”

Doomsday indeed for those of us worried about U.S. competitiveness. We really need to hit those books and stop playing video games so much if we’re going to be able to stand toe-to-toe against the next would-be superpower that is not only really good at algebra but has an economy that’s just blowin’ up.

Wait a second. This all sounds familiar doesn’t it? Ah yes, the eighties! Ah yes, Japan!

Let’s talk about Japan.

The emphasis on academic excellence is not quite as high in the U.S. as it is in many other countries.

Their “Roaring Eighties” reached its pinnacle when the Nikkei index peaked on December 29, 1989. In 1990 Japan’s gross domestic product per capita overcame the U.S.’s per capita GDP to become the highest in the world. And Japanese students are pretty good in math and science, right? Ranking 9th in math and 5th in science in the PISA test, their 15-year olds certainly performed better than American 15-year olds. If we take the National Academies’ word for it, that skilled mathematicians and scientists enable innovation, and we also assume that a booming economy would empower innovation, then Japan’s innovative powers and economic competitiveness should have skyrocketed out of the 80s much as China’s are predicted to do in the coming decades.

They didn’t.

The economic model that raised Japan from its post-World War II doldrums to its finest decade turned out to be ill-fitted to carry them further. As argued in Richard Katz’s book, “Japan: The System That Soured,” the ideas that led to the country’s resounding recovery had “outlived their usefulness once Japan’s economy matured. And yet Japan could not bring itself to leave them behind.” Japan’s critical shortcoming was its inability to use its newly acquired global influence as a springboard to new industries ripe for the taking. As Katz points out, “All along the economic horizon were a host of infant industries, from autos to electronics, with the potential to become world-class competitors.”

Sounds to me like somebody didn’t innovate.

Japan’s breakneck growth was built on the shoulders of their auto and electronics industries, both of which still remain two of the world’s largest. They continue today to improve the technologies, making them cheaper and faster. But cheaper and faster isn’t the kind of innovation U.S. scientists are so worried about losing. It’s the groundbreaking, paradigm-changing innovation that creates entire new markets. It’s the kind of innovation that produces Apple, Microsoft, Google, eBay, Amazon, and Facebook.
Another way we could estimate innovation is by counting Nobel Laureates. Wikipedia’s list shows that since 1980 U.S. scientists have garnered 129 Nobel Prizes for chemistry, physics, or physiology or medicine. Over that same period only 13 Japanese scientists have brought home the Prize. Importantly, a significant number of U.S. Nobels were won by foreign-born Americans. It is an enormous advantage to be able to attract the world’s top minds to your country. No other country does that better than the U.S.

Recognizing this vital resource–nearly 31% of lead inventors in biotech are foreign-born–many scientists and entrepreneurs in the U.S. have warned that post 9/11 immigration laws are hurting the U.S.’s ability to attract and retain foreign talent. A recent study in Nature Biotechnology argues that that’s simply not true, that “the specter of the ‘reverse brain drain’ appears to be based largely on myths.”
Oh, we forgot about our head of the class: China. Astonishingly, since 1980 China has not won a single scientific Nobel Prize. Keep in mind, this is a country of 1.3 billion people.

Apparently you don’t just mix math and science together and out pops innovation. Maybe what’s needed is a little spice called attitude. New ideas are not solely the result of knowledge and expertise. Often new ideas are preceded by a burning desire to make a breakthrough.  This desire can arise from noble aspirations, as in the case of wanting to cure cancer, or not-so-noble aspirations as in wanting to be known as the guy who cured cancer–and got rich doing it. My guess is the latter situation provides motivation for many more than the former. I don't believe the creators of Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook were driven by the conviction that people desperately needed computers, online books, or yet another way to socialize. They wanted to make names for themselves, and get rich doing it. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit and Americans have lots of it. The same is not true for many countries.

A brilliant article in New York Magazine by Wesley Yang highlights differences between American and Chinese cultures that may contribute to the "bamboo ceiling"–the lack of Asian-Americans occupying high-level business positions despite their being overrepresented at lower level, more technical positions. Yang narrows it down to upbringing: "To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. ...It's simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and 'pumping the iron of math' is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things."

But if we buy this argument–that attitude makes up for aptitude–then one might look at U.S. math and science scores as they plummet on tests like PISA and wonder if attitude will be enough. How far can entrepreneurial drive take you if you don't have the technical wherewithal to make good on that drive? Not very far, the National Academy members I'm sure would have you believe.

I disagree. Despite ranking 25th and 17th on the PISA test, I think the U.S. can actually do math and science, and do it damn well. We might not have the best scores on average, but our institutions have some of the brightest minds in the world. And I'm not just talking about the M.I.T.s and the Harvards and the Caltechs, I'm talking about the U Michigans, U Marylands, and the U Washingtons too. Do you think the people at our top 50 academic institutions will rank 25th in math? It seems to me that these think centers–and the companies founded by their scientists, engineers, physicians, entrepreneurs–more than make up for lackluster math and science scores across the country as a whole. Smart people is not a resource the U.S. lacks.

Japan's example confirms what experts have been telling us for a while now: innovation is crucial. But Japan's failure to innovate–and their subsequent economic demise–puts into question the supposed importance of math and science. It also questions the innovation-fueled rise of China that groups like the National Academies color as inevitable. I don't doubt that Americans spend less time studying math and science than people in countries like China and Japan. Nor do I doubt that we spend more time dreaming up the 'next big thing.' Americans value freedom of thought and new ideas, and these values are coupled to an irrepressible urge to stand out in the crowd. An open, capitalist society produces flexible institutions. That flexibility may just be a strength that science and technology alone cannot outcompete.

[image credits: chinadigitaltimes.net, amazon.com]
image 1: chinadigitaltimes
image 2: amazon

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.