The State of the Union’s Innovation

January 27, 2011


While watching President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, I couldn't help but be reminded of the recommendations put forth by the National Academies' Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century in its 2005 report on U.S. competitiveness. The report, called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” indicated that “although many people assume that the United States will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world.”

The report offered “four basic recommendations that focus(ed) on the human, financial and knowledge capital necessary for U.S. prosperity.” Committee member and former CEO of Lockheed Martin, Norm Augustine reiterated the recommendations in a blog post on Monday. They were:

  1. Improve K-12 science and math education.
  2. Invest in long-term basic research.
  3. Attract and retain the best and brightest students, scientists and engineers in the United States and around the world.
  4. Create and sustain incentives for innovation and research investment.

While some progress has been made through legislation like the America COMPETES Act, Augustine said we need more.

Since the completion of the report, 6 million more kids have dropped out of high school, he said. And political commentator David Gergen said Monday on his blog that “today, we are ninth in the proportion of young people with college degrees, 18th in high school graduation rates among industrialized nations and 27th in the proportion of science and engineering degrees. China now graduates more English-trained engineers than the United States and has become the world's No. 1 exporter in high technology.”

But Obama's speech inspired new hope for innovation in the United States. “The future is ours to win,” he said. “But to get there, we can't just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, ‘The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.'

“Sustaining the American dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle and meet the demands of a new age.

“And now it's our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”

In his talk, Obama spoke of many reforms that address the recommendations from the report. I wanted to highlight just a few:

  1. “Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America's success. But if we want to win the future, if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas, then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”
  2. “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That's what planted the seeds for the Internet; that's what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs, from manufacturing to retail, that have come from those breakthroughs.”
  3. “Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.”
  4. “With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.”

In conclusion, Obama said, “we do big things. The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it's because our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.”

Do you agree with President Obama? Will his suggested reforms spark innovation in Americans?