by Howard Stephenson

As one of the last persons on earth to read Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, I have finally been jolted into the realization that the future of United States as the world’s leading economic power is more at risk today than any other time in our history. The concerns spawned by Sputnik in 1957 are small compared to the threat from within caused by the widespread complacency of our people and our public institutions’ inability or unwillingness to adapt to world economic and educational competition.

Friedman’s depiction of manufacturing jobs going to China and service jobs moving to India creates a stark realization that the international competitive economic playing field has been leveled and that America can no longer rest on her laurels if she is to maintain her historical position in world economic leadership.

Friedman described the slow but steady erosion of America’s scientific and engineering (S&E) base which he called our “quiet crisis.” The shrinking pool of engineers and scientists is part of a perfect storm which will finally become apparent when it is too late to do much about it.

He described three “dirty little secrets” of our education system: 1) The numbers gap, 2) The ambition gap, and 3) The education gap.

The Numbers Gap – The scientists and engineers spawned by the space race and arms race are nearing retirement and we are not preparing their replacements to support our advanced economy. At the same time, the demand for S&E occupations is increasing at three times all other occupations while our supply of new S&E students is falling. Meanwhile, S&E graduates from Asia are growing exponentially.

The Ambition Gap – Outsourcing is cheaper and more efficient. When American companies sends jobs abroad, they not only save 75% on wages, but they get 100% increase in productivity. Friedman says one worker in Bangalor India will do the work of two or three employees from Western countries for much lower pay and doesn’t require six weeks of holidays.

The Education Gap – America needs to be providing more of the brain power for our corporations if we are to compete internationally. Any commitment to increase S&E education is totally missing in the United States. While Congress is increasing spending on pork at record levels, National Science Foundation funding – which should be doubled just to keep up – has actually been cut. Increasingly, under-qualified and uninspiring teachers in our public schools are attempting to teach math and science. As a result, U.S. K-12 rankings in math and science scores are dropping on international scales.

Because it takes 15 years to create a scientist or advanced engineer starting from when that person gets hooked on science and technology in elementary or middle school we need to begin now to reverse the demise of S&E.

Where There Is No Vision the People Perish

President Kennedy understood that competition with the Soviet Union was not a space race but a science race, Friedman explained. Kennedy laid out the vision of getting a man on the moon and then set forth a plan for achieving it through a massive national science initiative. That science initiative also helped us win the arms race.

Friedman said that a similar legacy project for the Bush administration could be a national science initiative with a goal of achieving energy independence in ten years. This would be Bush’s “moon shot.” In one fell swoop this would dry up money for terrorism, force Iran, Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia onto the path to reform, strengthen the dollar and create a magnet to inspire young people to contribute to the war on terrorism and America’s future by becoming scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

This plea for the Republican Congress and President Bush to set out on a path of energy independence is reminiscent of the criticism by Jon M. Huntsman Sr. about four years ago of the Bush administration for refusing to establish a national energy policy. Huntsman was right then and Friedman is right now.

It is difficult for me to understand how this President can be so lacking in vision when it comes to de-funding terrorism, solving our energy crisis, and winning the science race.

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen spoke to the Education Commission of the States regarding “disruptive technologies” and their potential affect on business, government and education. For me his speech is a sequel to Friedman’s Flat World.

Next Week: How the Flat World and Disruptive Technologies Affect Utah Public Education