Monday, June 28, 2010

The Current State of Affairs

"This momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union." When Thomas Jefferson wrote these words in 1820 after the passage of the Missouri Compromise, he was referring to the dispute over slavery that seemed to engulf the country at the time. Today, forces that threaten to endanger America's rank on the world stage still exist. For former NSF head Arden L. Bement, America's lack of progress in regards to advancement in science and technology jeopardizes enduring industries such as electrical power, recorded music, and motion pictures, industries that were once fledgling trades, sparked by Thomas Alva Edison's innovation. The 19th century gave birth to a plethora of new inventors-Cyrus McCormick, Samuel B. Morse, and Alexander Graham Bell constitute just a few. Edison was arguably the greatest of them all. By the time of his death at age 31, he had patented an astounding 1,093 mechanisms, "inventing the century," as Neil Baldwin described it. Edison and others like him helped establish America's scientific and technological dominance, a dominance that is no longer assured. Only about one-third of U.S. bachelor's degrees are in science or engineering now, compared with 63% in Japan and 53% in China. At his "invention factory" at Menlo Park, Edison established a goal to develop "a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so," a rate that even Steve Jobs would envy. Ironically, the industry that is most threatened today is one that Edison essentially created: energy. Clean power seems promising in its position to serve as the vangard of the 21st century much as aeronautics and the computer were to the 20th, but the U.S. is already lagging behind. China, South Korea, and Japan are positioned to invest more than $500 billion combined in clean technology over the next five years, while the U.S. is likely to invest less than $200 billion, on the assumption that clean-energy legislation actually makes it into law. Unless we invest in the education and research necessary to maintain the American edge, the U.S. will inevitably decline. The next generation of Edisons may be waiting, but unless we act quickly, they will not be equipped with the tools to thrive.