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Tech Industry

Missing the Cold War

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper finds that Silicon Valley is worried by a lack of impetus to stay on top in tech.

HP Labs director Dick Lampman won't quickly forget the warm thank-you he received from England's Cambridge University. Because so many foreign students failed to receive study visas for the United States, they were instead matriculating in the U.K. colleges, and Cambridge's vice chancellor was absolutely buoyant about the quality of their educational credentials.

"It was not the high point of my day," Lampman said.

Does it really matter that a few thousand teenagers from the Third World can't study here because of post-Sept. 11 restrictions? Many argue that it does not. After all, the technology business is booming, share prices are climbing, and a few companies even are partying like its 1999. What's past is necessarily prologue.

The absence of a similar challenge of that magnitude has left the U.S. lazy and complacent.

But traveling around Silicon Valley of late, I haven't found many serious thinkers brimming with Panglossian optimism when they assess the state of the technology industry.

Beyond the drop in student visas, they are deeply concerned about a lack of national resolve to deal with what some liken to a gathering storm. In a world where access to knowledge is easier than ever before, they don't assume that the U.S. can retain leadership of the very technology industry it invented.

Consider the following data points, from a report issued last month by the National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy.

• More than 600,000 engineers graduated from colleges and universities in China last year. For India, the number was 350,000. In the United States, it was a whopping 70,000.

• In a test of 21 countries for general knowledge in math and sciences, 12th graders in this country performed below the international average.

• U.S. industry spent more on tort litigation than on research and development in 2001.

Those are just some of the highlights. If you want to spend a thoroughly depressing afternoon, download and read the rest of the report at your leisure. If current trends continue, we may one day look back to this period as the U.S. era's high watermark.

Boom, zoom to the moon
Hard-core technologists can be excused if they pine for the good old days of the Cold War. After the Russians sent up the Sputnik in 1957, nobody had to explain what would happen to the U.S. if it fell behind the USSR in math and science. Scholarships were created. National attitudes changed. A few years later, John F. Kennedy even challenged America to put a man on the moon. Nobody had to explain the importance of pure technology research.

It's a tougher sell these days. The absence of a similar challenge of that magnitude has left the U.S. lazy and complacent. Google's vice president of engineering, Alan Eustace, is hardly an alarmist. But he, too, is worried about where the signposts are pointing.

As if the growing shortfall in students--born in the U.S. and abroad--with a thorough grounding in mathematics and the sciences was not bad enough. Eustace also bemoans a falloff in funding for nonmilitary technology research in organizations such as the DARPA and the National Science Foundation--as well as in academia.

"Talk to anybody in research in the universities. They are suffering like never before," Eustace said.

As the name suggests, DARPA, an acronym for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is primarily interested in applied research for the Department of Defense. What with our long-term involvement in Iraq, DARPA can make a plausible argument why it's vital to invent bomb-proof flak jackets than to divert its attention. But DARPA is only following the lead set by the leadership in Washington.

You can only neglect things for so long. Speaking earlier this week at a conference organized by TechNet, legendary venture capitalist John Doerr predicted that his kids "will inherit a world that's less good" than the one we now inhabit.

When it comes to predicting technology trends, Doerr's been right more than most of his peers. The problem he sees is that current policy inadvertently works against the tech industry's best interests. While politicians are more concerned with maneuvering for advantage before the next election, they're missing the bigger picture. The impact of the nation's ongoing neglect of the educational system, as well as the falloff in R&D, will become clear soon enough. Throw an increasingly scattershot policy approach toward broadband into the mix, and you have a recipe for mediocrity.

But no matter: We can outsource the hard work to the Indians and Chinese. They're supposed to be pretty good in the natural sciences, aren't they?