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Sending Uncle Sam back to school

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh reports on the latest move by Silicon Valley's mandarins to improve U.S. competitiveness.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
Technology companies have been warning for years that the U.S. is falling behind other nations in crucial areas like math and science education.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates made a rare visit to Washington to talk about "competiveness"--that is, the lack of it--and called for reduced barriers to foreigners working in the United States. Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett showed up to call for more tax dollars to be spent on basic research.

Politicians being politicians, nothing much happened. But now a serious effort is underway to tackle the so-called "competitiveness" problem head-on.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who represents a good chunk of Silicon Valley, is helping to organize a competitiveness summit that will be held at Stanford University in September. The goal: to bring together smart people in an informal setting and come up with proposals that can be turned into federal legislation next year.

It's "not a meeting with speeches and stages, but a working session with the leaders in the private sector on the whole issue of competitiveness so that we can design a national public policy package in the Congress that can address all the aspects of competitiveness," Eshoo told me on Friday. "We can't be whining about other countries. We have to have a game plan for America to win and American workers to win."

By now, the bleak statistics are well-known: In 2002, China and India graduated five times as many engineers as did the United States, which ranks a dismal 19th in eighth-grade math skills. Japan, South Korea, Norway and the Czech Republic boast far higher high-school graduation rates.

While details are not yet final, a lineup of prominent high tech, biotech, telecom, and venture capital folks will be invited, along with a collection of Stanford economists and other academics. The meeting will not be open to the public.

"We are working with Republicans in Congress on this, too," Eshoo said. "It's a non-partisan issue...We're slipping behind. We're not training enough in the sciences and engineering fields. There is a long list of things that needs to be addressed. They can't be taken up item-by-item legislatively."

Eshoo is right. The United States' onetime dominance of many areas related to technology is over--if it ever truly existed in the first place.

Some ideas that summit participants might wish to consider:

•  A simplified tax system, perhaps even a flat tax. It's ironic that former Soviet republics have embraced the idea, but the world's greatest democracy hasn't. Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, Georgia and Romania have all moved in this direction--and their economies have prospered. Give them a few years, and they'll be fierce competitors.

•  Public school reform. As I wrote in a column in January, technology CEOs like to talk about better math and science education but tend to suggest milquetoast solutions that are designed to be inoffensive. How about experimenting with more radical solutions like education tax credits and tuition grants?

•  Welcome visitors. An influential Chinese mathematician couldn't address a cryptography conference last week in California because she was denied a visa. If this continues, more technical conferences will move offshore. How about amending the portions of the Patriot Act that have alarmed immigrants, and, as Gates said, awarding more H1-B visas?

Whatever the legislative proposals that the Stanford summit eventually coalesces around, the participants will be well-served by being brave enough to take political risks. Education reform will alarm teachers' unions and Democrats, while altering the Patriot Act will draw opposition from President Bush and conservative groups.

But inaction also carries risks, including a decline in the education of generations of Americans over another 50-year stretch. As Rep. Eshoo correctly warns, "We don't have a corner on the market of all ideas."