The key to maintaining global competitiveness

by Michael Ickowitz

Billions of dollars in the United States are invested annually in science education and workforce development through programs that are administered by nearly 600 STEM-focused organizations. Across the U.S. Federal Government alone, more than $2.9 billion was spent on STEM education in 2015, an increase of 3.7 percent from the year before. Why invest so heavily in developing the next generation of scientists and engineers? Investing in STEM education and scientific workforce development strengthens our nation’s security, global competitiveness and economic superiority.

The global economy, and the well-being of people everywhere, is affected by research and development (R&D) innovations that transforms areas such as information technology, advanced manufacturing and health care. Every advanced nation has some strategy to build and maintain a scientific workforce because they all depend on science and technology innovations for their continued prosperity and their ability to provide for and defend their citizens.  This inherent dependence on R&D highlights and extends the importance of government involvement and support, as well as the need for a steady stream of well- trained scientists and STEM professionals.

Economic growth depends directly on our ability to innovate. Studies show that R&D outcomes can be used as a measure of economic prosperity, mainly by measuring a nation’s number of patents and comparing them to gross domestic product. Other studies suggest linkages between entrepreneurship and economic growth, and that newly created goods generate social ties and common interests in society. New goods as an output of the economy continuously spread American influence all over the world. Moreover, R&D is at the crux of almost every arm of government: it impacts our energy, defense, health and environment. America influences the world not only by developing and exporting the newest cancer treatment or heavy machinery, but also by the technological superiority of our military and by our ability to solve large, complex problems.

The notion that a nation’s research infrastructure and resulting innovation can influence its economic health is not new. It has long been held that the competition between nations to innovate creates often dynamic economic growth because innovations can enter the system at any time and from anywhere, causing hegemonic influence of nations to rise and fall. It is important that the U.S. remain competitive in this regard because it is likely that nations other than the U.S. will in fact innovate more quickly in proportion with their population. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Institute for Statistics, the U.S. had 4,018 researchers employed in R&D per million people in 2012—the most recent year available for U.S. data.

In terms of global rankings, this places the United States eighth in the world, behind Israel, Finland, South Korea, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Growth in the number of researchers in R&D per million people grew from 2011 to 2012 at a rate of 0.19 percent, which was eclipsed by the growth of R&D in Israel, South Korea, China, and Germany during that same time. This pattern of being outpaced in the number of researchers in R&D has continued since data collection began in 1996. In other words, if the United States does not continuously invest in developing a scientific workforce, we are creating an economic and societal environment in which the United States must rely on the rest of the world in areas such as food security, telecommunications, energy, and defense.

Funding scientific workforce development programs is more than just a mechanism to provide real-world research experiences. It is a crucial economic strategy for ensuring continued global superiority through workforce stability. We have a responsibility to invest in the future of the U.S. scientific workforce so that we can continue to contribute to economic growth and the advancement of society. The cost of this investment pales in comparison to the cost of not investing, which creates the risk of falling global influence, competitiveness, risking our prosperity, security, and general well-being.

About the Author

Michael Ickowitz, a former ORISE science education project manager, serves as senior manager for international recruitment and market development (North America) for the University of New South Wales. His research is focused on government investments in the development of future scientific workforce and innovation capacities, as well as the measurable relationship between these investments and resulting economic and societal impacts. He has extensive experience in scientific workforce development planning and securing project funding from both government and industry partners. Michael holds a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology with a concentration in political economy with a statistics minor.