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Lights out in America

In many areas such as robotics, flat panel displays, lithium ion batteries, nuclear power, high-speed trains, memory chips, and most fields of clean energy, the US has given up the chase

Edward Luce 

When Edward Luce completed a tour of duty as a foreign correspondent in South Asia, he wrote (2007), subtitled “The Strange Rise of Modern India”. Then he moved to the USA. He was in time to report on the peak of the boom and then the crash. His new book is on the “spectre” of America’s decline. In this excerpt, a look at how America is losing its edge in R&D and innovation

Every US president pays homage to America’s inventive genius. From the age of electricity and the internal combustion engine at the end of the nineteenth century to today’s continuing IT revolution, America has dominated human technological advancement for more than a century. The United States continues to lead the world in many strategic areas, notably software, biosciences, social media, and most computer chip technology. In some others, such as aerospace and satellites, America now shares the lead with Europe and Asia.

In many areas, however, including robotics, flat panel displays, lithium ion batteries, nuclear power, high-speed trains, memory chips, and most fields of clean energy, the United States has given up the chase. In some fields, such as flat panel displays, America lost its lead gradually through the shift to Asia. In others, such as clean energy, the United States has almost willfully pushed away what was originally a huge first-mover advantage. Even in computing, Americans cannot rely on keeping an indefinite edge: in 2010 the Chinese built the fastest computer in the world. [...]

Only the willfully unseeing would disagree that America offers the friendliest culture in history for risk takers, and in many respects it still does. Not only is it socially acceptable to fail. In some parts of America it is a badge of pride. On top of that, America also built the world’s most robust climate for innovation. Its vital attributes included the ability to attract the world’s best brains, a deep pool of venture capital to fund the best ideas, the most generous spigot for private and public R&D, a pragmatic tradition of public policy, the most robust system of patent protection, and the best universities.

With the exception of the university system most of these advantages are being whittled away. And even here, Asia is investing in universities on a scale that should not be ignored. Many of America’s best technical universities, such as Cal Tech and Carnegie Mellon, are setting up campuses in East Asia and elsewhere. “You have to go to where the market is,” said the head of a distinguished private college in New England that recently opened a campus in Singapore.* But it is in terms of inventiveness, risk capital, research money, and quality of government that America is falling down.

For more than a century America has been the world’s biggest magnet for people of talent. From Andrew Carnegie, who was born in Scotland, to Andy Grove of Intel from Hungary, or Sergey Brin of Google from Russia, foreign-born entrepreneurs are as American as pizza and bagels. Almost one in two start-ups in Silicon Valley is created by people born elsewhere, mostly India and China. So, too, are foreign-born scientists. From Albert Einstein to a large portion of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project that developed the atom bomb and to the university and corporate research teams in today’s America, foreign scientists are as American as Hollywood special effects. More than 70 percent of US PhDs in physics are awarded to foreign students. Just over half of US patents are now issued to foreigners.

Study after study shows that immigrants are far greater risk takers than the native-born in any society. That pioneering spirit was unique to the rise of America for its first 150 years. And it was replenished in the 1960s, when Congress lifted the barriers to nonwhite immigration. Yet in the decade since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States has ceded much of its attraction as a destination. The vast majority of foreign students, including Chinese and Indians, are required to return home. A small number get H1B visas in the lottery for the annual quota for foreign skilled workers (which had dwindled to 68,000 by 2011). Given the rise of opportunities at home, many foreign students would have returned anyway, even if green cards had been stapled to their degrees.

Take Ajeet Rohatgi, who is America’s leading photovoltaic scientist and head of the school of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech. To be accepted by Rohatgi as your PhD supervisor is to enter a camp near the summit of global science. There are perhaps only two other solar scientists in the world who belong in Rohatgi’s category — Martin Green in Australia and Stefan Glunz in Germany. Now in his early sixties, Rohatgi is a latent entrepreneur having licensed his university patents to Suniva, one of America’s few remaining solar panel manufacturers. Rohatgi’s labs, which are a warren of micro (and nano) testing devices, are situated in a nondescript redbrick portion of the university in downtown Atlanta. Nearby is the swimming pool built for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which is powered by Rohatgi’s solar panel technology.

Rohatgi, who was born in India but, like so many of his peers, studied in the United States, said his doctoral students are mostly foreign. Of the twelve PhDs Rohatgi is supervising nine are foreigners. Unlike their predecessors in the 1990s, when Rohatgi started his lab, almost all will return home. When I met Rohatgi in his lab in 2011, he had recently bid farewell to three Korean students and two Indians. “The salaries in their home countries are shockingly competitive,” said Rohatgi, who is a UP Brahmin [...]. He studied at Virginia Tech and Lehigh University after having completed his undergraduate degree at one of the renowned Indian Institutes of Technology. When he visited India as a student in the 1970s he went to a research lab in Delhi. The experience confirmed Rohatgi’s decision to become an American. “It wasn’t what you knew,” said Rohatgi, “it was who you knew.

There was no way I could work as a scientist in India.” [...]

Even in the mid-1990s America remained the place to be. The United States still accounted for the bulk of global solar panel production and most of world demand (principally from California). Since then, America’s share of global photovoltaic production and capacity has plummeted — in each case to below 10 percent. The United States has gone from being the big fish in a small pond to a minnow in a growing lake. “We don’t have a supply chain in the United States any more,” Rohatgi said. “You can’t even find an American silicon wafer supplier.” [...]

Fewer and fewer [Americans] are doing doctorates in science. There are twice as many Americans studying MBAs as the combined total of those studying engineering at postgraduate and undergraduate levels. Until recently that didn’t matter because so many foreign engineers stayed on after graduating. But now they are harder to persuade. “If you look at my generation, then the top solar scientists were mostly American,” said Rohatgi. “The generation below me and the one below that are all outside of America.” He mentioned the University of New South Wales in Sydney, whose booming photovoltaic department is virtually owned by China’s Suntech, the world’s largest solar company. “When you lose the market you lose the people,” says Rohatgi. “Then you lose the innovation.”


Copyright © Edward Luce 2012. Excerpted with permission from Little, Brown/Hachette India
*Having the best universities is not on its own enough to stop decline if so many of its brightest graduates go home.

Author: Ed Luce

Publisher: Little, Brown/Hachette India
Pages: 304
Price: Rs 699

First Published: Sat, May 05 2012. 00:07 IST