Poor Math and Science Skills Dragging American Innovation Down

BySean Dominguez

An infographic from VentureBeat has been circulating around the web that cites the U.S. as atop the rest of the world in terms of innovative countries. This is shining hope for Americans looking for an end in sight to the recession. According to the Census Bureau, young businesses are some of the biggest drivers for job growth.

But, trouble arises when you consider that the bulk of innovative entrepreneurial ventures are in high-tech industries. Success in these industries is highly dependent on the scientific and mathematical aptitude of the available workforce. However, in comparison with their Asian and European counterparts, the U.S. commonly ranks poorly in these fields, according to The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). This is a problem. 

The U.S. cannot sustain its position as the forefront innovator if future generations are becoming increasingly inept at the very skills that foster innovation. If the U.S. hopes to reap the benefits of being the most innovative country in the world, it must change the way it teaches science and math before it is too late.

Perhaps these statistics don’t appear threatening to you. After all, students in the U.S. have consistently performed mediocre on the TIMSS exams since its inception in 1995 – 16 years before the release of this infographic. But in terms of innovation, what these numbers aren’t capturing is the fact that a disproportionately large amount of the advanced degrees that are sought out in the high-tech fields are held by foreign-born students. Nearly 70% of engineers with a PhD are foreign-born, as are the creators of 52% of Silicon Valley’s startups during the recent tech boom. Increasingly, many of these highly educated men and women are taking their skills and leaving the U.S. in record numbers. According to the same study cited above, only 6% of Indian, 10% of Chinese, and 15% of European students graduating in 2008 planned to settle in the U.S.

"We're in the midst of a massive brain drain," says Vivek Wadhwa a senior research associate at Harvard Law School who has done extensive research on the topic. "For the first time, immigrants have better opportunities outside the U.S."

If a major source of U.S. innovation is now leaving in increasing numbers, the only way to replenish these talented workers is to improve domestic education in the fields of science and math. Jim Simons, billionaire hedge-fund manager and founder of the non-profit “Math for America," believes that this can only happen if the most able mathematicians can be stopped from moving into the lucrative private sector and are convinced instead to teach kids of their expertise. He contends that the only way to do this would be to raise the compensation of math and science teachers. His plan, which would take a core group of 10-20% of exceptional math and science teachers and provide them with 20% higher pay with stable five-year terms, would cost an estimated $2 billion every year.

This may seem like a lot to ask, especially when considering the constant threat of budget cuts. But Simons argues that the needed funding would come not from increased spending, but in reallocating the funds. According to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the U.S. spends more money per pupil than every country besides Switzerland – including a third more than Finland, who often ranks highly in its math and science education.

This is not to say that the single driving factor to U.S. innovation is only its ability to attract highly intelligent and motivated people from foreign countries. It is still home to a number of the best universities in the entire world. The historical status of the U.S. as “the land of opportunity” is still alive and manifested in its very welcoming attitude toward entrepreneurs. In fact, the U.S. has at least 50 times as many angel investors as Europe, and Americans have euphemized the common term “risk capital” into the more trailblazing-sounding “venture capital.”

However, as a major source of its innovation seeps out to other countries without replacement, undisputed U.S. dominance in the field of innovation may be coming to an end. In the global perspective, this would be a good thing. Worldwide technological progress accelerates the advancement of humanity and creates a healthy competition among countries. But this isn’t a question of what happens when this time of increased competition inevitably arrives. Rather, will our inability to produce high-tech specialists domestically hinder our ability to be relevant players in this competition? If we hope to reap the benefit of job creation that innovation entails, we’ll have to reform the education system as soon as we possibly can.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons