Successful nations, just like successful businesses, are built on three things: people, education and ideas.
By opening our nation’s doors to people ready to build new lives and abide by the Constitution, the U.S. has become a stronger, more vibrant nation. By investing heavily in public education, the nation transformed both natives and newcomers into literate, numerate Americans ready to contribute to an advanced industrial economy. And by investing in scientific research, the nation combined and advanced new ideas — many from these new Americans — in new ways to build the most productive, prosperous nation the world has even seen.
However, these three pillars of the American dream — people, education and the investment in scientific research that is the wellspring of new ideas, new capabilities and new products — are all endangered.
Despite record low unemployment and dire shortages of engineers and technical skills, immigration is viewed as a threat to American jobs and public safety. Public schools — where the American ideals, history and patriotism were instilled in all of us — are somehow viewed as a threat to those ideals and an unearned gift to ungrateful immigrants. Meanwhile, scientific research is viewed as a luxury best left to the private sector.
Historically, America has been a dynamic society that embraced change and celebrated innovation. What is different now? At risk of gross oversimplification, the simple answer is: fear.
The apex of American power and prosperity after World War II was heightened by the catastrophes that had befallen most of the world: Europe and Japan ruined; Russia drained; and China divided as to how to recover its lost greatness. It took a long time, but the world has caught up. Three generations of nearly continuous growth and prosperity allowed us to neglect fundamentals and paper over deep divisions within our society. Now, the assumption of American supremacy and an ever-improving future is not so assured. Frightening indeed.
A natural reaction to this fear is to go on the defensive by attempting to lock in the status quo and pine for a brighter past: Stop immigration, protect incumbent industries and jobs, cut government spending wherever possible, including spending for education and scientific research. Individually, these reactions are debatable, but collectively they may be disastrous.
To sustain our global leadership, we must do more of what built our leadership, not less. We must reform our immigration policies to limit abuses while welcoming those who bring new talent and energy, along with the desire to adopt American ideals and contribute to our nation’s prosperity.
We must also increase our investment in and the quality of public education to assimilate new Americans and build the technically and mathematically literate workforce we need so desperately. To do so, this investment must emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at all levels, from grade school to college.
Additionally, we must increase our national investment in fundamental scientific research. This research is too long term, too expensive and often too risky for the private sector to take on. Knowledge is universal; if we don’t do the research, somebody else will, and we will be left at a permanent technological disadvantage.
China has announced a plan for supremacy in multiple strategic technologies. Top U.S. scientists are now being lured to China and Europe by robust, sustained research funding, state-of-the-art laboratories and highly skilled support staff.
To maintain our competitiveness, the U.S. must recommit to the formula that served us so well: people, education and ideas that stem from investing in scientific research. Our national security and national prosperity depend on it.
Mike Tamor is an adjunct professor at the Arizona State University School for Innovation in Society. He previously worked as a Henry Ford Technical fellow at Ford Motor Company. His 35-year research career spanned from fundamental material science to the development of hybrid electric and fuel cell vehicle technology to global energy systems and sustainability.