Commentary: Innovate or evaporate

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large  |  April 12, 2012 at 6:30 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, April 12 (UPI) -- He was voted one of the "50 Great Americans," holds 28 honorary degrees, received, not once, but five times, the U.S. Defense Department's highest civilian decoration -- the Distinguished Service Medal.

At different times, Norman R. Augustine was chief executive officer of Martin Marietta, CEO of Lockheed Martin, chairman of the Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, chairman of the National Academy of Engineering, chairman of the Aerospace Industries, chairman of the Defense Science Board and of the American Institute of Aeronautics.

His book of management maxims is modestly titled "Augustine's Laws." And when he has something to say, the powers that be listen carefully.

This week in Washington, Augustine triggered alarm bells about the United States' continuing decline in the global educational sweepstakes.

Since 2000, he said: "One-third of U.S. manufacturing jobs -- 5.5 million jobs -- have disappeared. 42,000 factories have closed. Further. It is no longer simply factories that are moving abroad. The list now includes research laboratories, administrative offices, financial offices, prototype shops, and more."

What to do?

Six years ago, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine formed a 20-member committee of public and private university presidents, Nobel laureates, CEOs, former presidential appointees and the head of a state public school system -- and produced a document that became known as the "Gathering Storm" report, after the first line in its title.

The message: "Innovate or evaporate."

Recommendations were included in Congress' stimulus bill, but the "problem," as Augustine sees it, "is that this is not a Sputnik, 9/11 or Pearl Harbor moment. It is the proverbial frog being slowly boiled."

Steve Jobs, he said, told U.S. President Barack Obama the reason Apple employs 700,000 workers abroad is "because he can't find 30,000 engineers in the U.S."

In China, seven of its eight top leaders hold degrees in engineering. One of them is China's Premier Wen Jiabao who said: "Scientific discovery and technological inventions have brought about new civilizations, modern industries, and the rise and fall of nations. I firmly believe science is the ultimate revolution."

Between the initial "Gathering Storm" report and the recent update "another 6 million American youths dropped out of high school condemning themselves to a life of poverty and hardship," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Thirty years ago, 10 percent of California's general fund went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons. Today, said Augustine, nearly 11 percent goes to prisons and 8 percent to higher education.

California recently released 30,000 prisoners because of lack of space, he added, and Atlantic magazine said, "one year at Princeton costs $37,000 while one year at a New Jersey prison costs $44,000." And "several states use eighth grade scores to predict how many prison cells they will need in the future."

In the "Nation's Report Card," said Augustine, "67 percent of U.S. fourth graders were scored 'not proficient' (the lowest ranking) in science. By eighth grade the fraction had grown to 70 percent, and by 12th grade it reached 79 percent. Seemingly, the longer our young people are exposed to America's K-12 education system, the worse they perform."

At the present rate of improvement it will take about 150 years for public school students to catch up with their private school counterparts in the United States, he said, "and this says nothing about catching up with the children of China, Finland, Taiwan and India.

Craig Barrett, the former CEO of Intel and a Gathering Storm committee member, says more than 90 percent of the revenues Intel realizes on the last day of any given year come from products that didn't exist on the first day of that same year. This couldn't be done without non-American brainpower.

Augustine's explanation: Almost 70 percent of fifth to eighth grade students in U.S. public schools are taught math by teachers who possess neither a degree nor a certificate in math. And fully 93 percent of students are taught physical sciences by teachers with neither a degree nor a certificate in the physical sciences.

"In fact," he adds, "over half the nation's science teachers have not had a single college course in the field they teach."

After a major study of the ever widening education gap, Management Consultant McKinsey and Co. concluded that "if U.S. youth could match the academic performance of students in Finland, our economy would be between 9 and 16 percent larger."

That, says Augustine, "is about $2 trillion."

Related UPI Stories
Latest Headlines
Trending Stories