America: Running With Scissors, and Good at It

BOSTON.  If reader mail is any indication, we have grave doubts about the future of our country. Worse, the menu of angst is as big as the food menu at Denny’s. Pick a topic, and we’re worrying about it.

Here, for instance, are a few of 64 worrisome factoids from just one of many sources, a National Academy of Sciences report on our declining ability to compete in the global economy:

  • Bell Laboratories, once the crown jewel of American technological innovation, is now a French company.
  • California now spends more on prisons than it spends on higher education.
  • The number of people employed in corrections nationwide is approaching the number of people employed in the automobile industry.
  • We spend more on potato chips than we spend on R&D.
  • A third of U.S. manufacturing companies say they are hampered by some level of skill shortages.
  • Hon Hai Precision Industry in China employs more people than the worldwide employment of Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Intel and Sony combined.


All of that is true. So our glass could be half empty. A closer look, however, can lead to a different interpretation. Hon Hai Precision Industry would not employ so many people if it did not do the grunt work for Apple and other American technology companies. And Apple, unlike Hon Hai, doesn’t have a problem with worker suicides.

 So I’d like to offer a less worried view, one that recognizes a few of the things we forget about when we make our problem lists. Look around and you will likely be able to add some positives of your own. If you look at what we actually do, the America is a much brighter place.

Witness this. MIT is now celebrating its 150th anniversary. It has just graduated the class of 2011. A brief look at both those events tells us that the American glass isn’t half empty. More likely, it’s about to gush like a warm can of beer at a Fourth of July cookout. Skeptics should view the You-Tube video of the MIT 150 flash mob dance.

When the class of 2011 was admitted in 2007 there were 12,443 applications. Only 1,533 were accepted. Either number represents a lot of talent. The admitted class came from 50 states and represented 66 countries. Nor is MIT alone: Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Cal Tech and Chicago (just to name a few) have similar figures. Science and engineering, the engines of global growth, are alive and well. While the number of degrees being granted in China, India and elsewhere will inevitably increase and dilute the American scientific presence in the world, we might consider that it will make a better world, not a dismal America.

You can understand why by examining the exhibit of 150 innovations that is part of the MIT anniversary celebration. You can almost feel the acceleration of knowledge, the surge of human possibility.  

Here’s a personal example. In 1958 I was a senior a high school senior in Princeton, N.J.. I worked as a lab assistant for professor Gerhard Fankhauser. He was chairman of the biology department and probably the last natural biologist at Princeton University.  Nearby labs in Guyot Hall were filled with petri-dishes and e-coli. The double helix structure of DNA had been discovered just a few years earlier by Watson and Crick.

But by 2000 the entire human genome had been mapped. We now have a whole new field, bioinformatics, for research in molecular biology. As Pat Cox, editor of the Breakthrough Technology Alert newsletter recently pointed out, none of this would be possible without another innovation— the transistor— and Moore’s Law (the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years). Only vastly increased computation power can deal with the amount of raw data genomic research is producing. No one predicted the interaction of these two discoveries.

We are not slowing down. We are speeding up. Change is all around us. Our problem is not a shortage of creative scientists and engineers. It isn’t even a shortage of educated people. Our problem is our limited capacity to adapt.

So we run with scissors. We’ve been doing it since 1776. We’ve taken some falls. We’ve lost some blood. But when push comes to shove, we wouldn’t have it any other way.