Monday, February 06, 2006

The Science Threat

Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby writes of "The Fake Science Threat" (mirrored by French, hat tip to SimonWorld). He argues that worries of competitiveness with China in math and science is misdirected.
The science lobby should also stop pretending that countries compete the same way companies do. Firms such as Toyota and Ford really do go head-to-head against each other; if Toyota has superior technology, it will steal Ford's customers -- and Ford may even disappear. But if China produces Nobel-quality science, it won't put the United States out of business; rather, Chinese discoveries will help American scientists discover more, too. Equally, Toyota doesn't sell cars to Ford workers, so there's no benefit to Ford's people if Toyota's quality advances. But China does sell to Americans, so whatever makes it more productive has some upside for the United States as well.

Hollow Threat
Science needn't always be a competition. Mallaby is correct that international economics differs from economics of corporations. International economics is not a zero-sum game and therefore an advancement in one country can bring about advancements for all. In addition to economic considerations, the same argument works for medicine. If a cure for AIDS is discovered it won't matter one iota where it was first discovered.

The type of scientific discovery that wins Nobel prizes and is discussed by Mallaby involves publishing in academic journals. That type of advance quickly spreads beyond national boundaries. The economic growth brought about by such scientific advances results more from the diffusion of the advance than the discovery itself. America needn't fear this type of competition. No matter where the advance occurs, America is well-prepared to take maximum advantage.

There are more ways than one to apply scientific advances. Not all science is intended to spawn economic growth. One other pursuit that is heavily dependent on scientific advances is military weaponry. The research, development, and acquisition of new weapon systems is heavily dependent on scientists and a technological edge can make the difference between victory and defeat. Unlike medical or commercial technologies, scientific progress with likely military application is not usually published in open-source journals. Much military research is secret and therefore relying on foreigners to conduct the research might not be possible/advisable, thus in large part negating the oft-proposed immigration solution.

If America loses its edge in science and engineering education, its military edge is likely to follow. I'll leave it to Thomas Friedman and William Odom to debate whether or not we are losing our high-technology edge, but to argue that such an erosion is not potentially threatening is to not consider the issue fully.