by Gary Beach

Time for a National Technology Policy

Apr 01, 20042 mins

Are you wondering why this column’s headline is in Chinese? Here’s a hint: The translation is “Time for a National Technology Policy.”

China has one. The United States doesn’t.

In 1992, I hosted an event at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City titled “The Great Debate: Does the United States Need a Formal Technology Policy?” Panelists included two members of Congress and two high-tech CEOs. Their conclusion: Forget it. The government should stay out of the tech business.

In December 2003, CIO asked visitors to its website the same question in a Quick Poll. How times have changed. Now seven in 10 agree: The United States does need a long-term technology policy covering science, education and R&D.

What caused this sea change? The World Wide Web.

Even though high-speed connectivity isn’t yet globally pervasive, telecommuting has morphed from doing work in your pajamas 10 miles from the office to offshore outsourcers doing the same work halfway around the world, 24/7, at half the cost. The Web and globalization have leveled the playing field for other countries to compete. Some people, including myself, worry how the United States will be able to maintain its technology leadership.

We are right to worry. According to the National Science Foundation’s “Science and Engineering Indicators 2003” report, 1.3 million students received degrees from American universities in 2002; only 59,000, or just 5 percent, of those degrees were in engineering. In the same time frame, the People’s Republic of China conferred 568,000 college degrees. But an amazing 220,000?or 39 percent?were engineering degrees. It’s not a coincidence that the Chinese government has promoted technology education for more than two decades. Other countries?India, for example?are putting more emphasis on math, science and engineering education than America is.

The United States’s robust capacity to invent and to innovate depends on the influx of new ideas from the next generation. If current trends continue, what aspect of the tech business will America still lead in the future? Will our best technical minds find better opportunities halfway around the world? These are tough questions, with no easy answers.