If you haven't had your weekly dose of hand-wringing about the U.S. falling behind Asian countries in science and technology, here is a new study by the Boston Consulting Group. After identifying the countries with the best environments for innovation, it ranked the United States in 8th place.
Who's number one? The tiny city-state of Singapore. South Korea in second.
Why the low rank for the United States, home to Silicon Valley, prestigious research universities and, until recently, mountains of wealth? You, at least according to the study authors. They conclude that the American workforce just isn't good enough, for two reasons.
First, they say, the U.S. just isn't attracting the talent it used to, partly due to our weird immigration laws. Business Week cites the example that companies receiving some of the federal bailout money aren't allowed to import employees on H-1B visas, which are often used for speciality workers in the sciences. Because U.S. unemployment has risen so high during the recession, Congress didn't want to look like they were handing out money to give jobs to foreigners. In Singapore, however, the population totals only 4 million, so bringing in fresh minds to boost the economy is an absolute must.
While the U.S. isn't importing enough talent, the study says, what's here isn't good enough. The second reason the authors give for the U.S. lag is the same beat we've been hearing for years—American science education just doesn't cut it. While Americans have panicked at each new reporting stating that our students' math and science test scores lag behind the world's, Singapore's government has quietly committed to improving its students' science education, the study says.
However, being the world's innovation hub hasn't insulated Singapore from worldwide economic calamity. Its unemployment has doubled from last year, though only to 4.4 percent. Still, that threatens to undermine the tiny country's status as a top dog in science and technology, especially if it's not able to import as many foreign workers. But going into a shell, backing off from risk-intensive but innovation-promoting policies to play it safe until better times come around, would just send the country into a standstill and delay those better times.
That's a good lesson for the United States as we try to simultaneously bring ourselves out of this crippling recession and also reclaim our title as the world's innovation hub. And the country might be on the right track—New Scientist says that Obama's dream team of science advisers and calls to restore science's prestige in America might push us well ahead of the European Union. But could the U.S. catch South Korea and Singapore? Probably, but there are a lot more things worth worrying about than being number one on somebody's list.