Two weeks ago, I was in Bangkok to visit the Kenan Institute Asia and meet Thai political, economic and scientific leaders. Tom Friedman may be right that The World Is Flat, but it’s still πR kilometers to the other side – a long way, no matter how many movies you watch or gin and tonics you drink. Levity aside, each time I am in Asia, I am reminded in so many ways of the accelerating pace of change and the increasingly precarious competitive position of the United States.
First, the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure is not keeping pace with the rest of the world. By the time one clears customs and immigration, which, by the way, is far easier than the embarrassingly degrading process for U.S. visitors, the telecommunications revolution is in your face. From the diversity of mobile service providers and electronic content to the SMS culture to the ready availability of true broadband, the differences are striking. Yes, a higher population density does provider angst over ROI, but so does adoption of the GSM standard and the rise of voice over IP (VoIP).
Second, there are national commitments to nurturing students with science and math aptitude, with longitudinal financial support. I spent an afternoon at the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), which supports four R&D centers:
- National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology
- National Metal and Materials Technology Center
- National Nanotechnology Center
- National Electronics and Computer Technology Center
and the Thai Science Park. In addition to a “reverse brain drain” program to attract Thai expatriates with advanced scientific degrees, they manage a series of science camps for middle schools students. Each student is assigned a mentor, who provides counsel and advice. Those students with interest and aptitude are tracked and mentored through secondary school, then offered scholarships and fellowships through college and graduate school, with a guaranteed position in a Thai research laboratory.
As an aside, recent UNESCO statistics show that the 50 percent of Russian college students are studying science. By comparison, the percentages are 43 and 25 for China and India but only 18 for the U.S. My friend Stu Feldman, ACM President, recently noted that IBM hired more IT staff offshore than within the U.S. last year, not because of salary differentials but because of statistics like these and the inadequate number of trained U.S. students. The Computing Research Association (CRA), of which I am chair, is working with several groups as part of an task force on the image of computing in North America.
Perhaps even more important is the commitment by Asian governments to innovation. The Thai Science Park contains 1.5M square feet of R&D space, and supports about 2000 researchers adjacent to the Asian Institute of Technology and Thammasat University. The park’s goal is to bridge the valley of death between basic university research and industrial development. Thailand plans to build four more such parks. Similarly, Singapore built a 2.0M square foot Biopolis – from conception to operation in 24 months. In seems inconceivable that the U.S. could move that quickly unless faced with a national crisis.