The Great Invention Race

Whatever we do, China and India will train more scientists and engineers. But America's still got the best environment for ideas to grow.

U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to "win the future" by out-innovating the rest of the world was a ringing climax of his State of the Union address this week. Obama suggested increasing U.S. investment in research and development, a good and welcome step. But what will really determine U.S. competitiveness in the global ideas market isn't the money we can pour into the system. It's the strength of the system itself --  the social, political, and cultural institutions that shape ideas from start to finish.

There is no doubt that China and India are catching up with the United States when it comes to hardware -- the raw materials for innovation. They are increasing their spending on science and technology, training more engineers and scientists, applying for more patents, and churning out more research papers. 

But the actual system for generating useful ideas in these places remains underdeveloped. Yes, more scientists are being trained, but that doesn't mean they're producing good science. Plagiarism and data fraud are rampant. In a survey of 180 graduates with doctorates quoted in China Daily, 60 percent admitted to paying for their work to be published in academic journals. Sixty percent also said that they had copied someone else's work. Even as a large number of Chinese and Indian scientific stars have returned to their native countries from abroad, they have been unable to transform a research culture characterized by strong bureaucratic control and deference toward age and seniority. In the words of Anita Mehta, a physicist at the S. N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences in India, "Diversity of research or personality is often frowned upon, those who don't match stereotypes or work on subjects that have been hammered to death are labelled 'too independent.'"

In the Indian and Chinese private sectors, there are very real bursts of entrepreneurial activity. But government incentives, especially in China, are focused on making Chinese versions of international products such as cell phones and semiconductors rather than on sparking bold, local innovation. In both countries, new companies must maneuver through an opaque legal system, unpredictable regulations, and volatile capital markets. And though policymakers in Beijing and Delhi are aware of these challenges, addressing them will require political and social change, and so progress will be slow and uneven.

America can't win the hardware race. There are simply too many people -- 2.3 billion people in India and China -- for the United States to compete when it comes to materials and labor. Given respective population size, China and India will one day have more skilled engineers than the United States, even if their quality doesn't match up now. Total U.S. spending on R&D ($395 billion in 2010) is currently more than two and a half times larger than Chinese expenditures ($141 billion), but that gap is rapidly shrinking.  

But America can compete when it comes to software -- i.e., the ideas and innovation that are still out of reach for China's and India's more hidebound scientific and business communities. An important first step will be helping small start-ups. Small companies (those with fewer than 500 employees) generate about half of total employment in the United States; according to the Small Business Technology Council, they also employ more scientists and engineers than do large businesses and more than universities and federal labs combined. Specifically, as a recent study by the Kauffman Foundation shows, new small businesses are the ones creating these jobs. Since 1980 nearly all net job creation in the United States occurred in firms less than five years old; over the last four years, these young start-ups created two-thirds of all new jobs.

To help small businesses, the U.S. government needs what William Miller, former vice president and provost of Stanford University and a venture capitalist, describes as "people and place" policies -- policies that support research, training, and collaboration. The Clinic Program at Harvey Mudd College, for example, involves students in solving real-world problems that have immediate commercial or scientific applications. The locus of innovation isn't in individual entities anymore -- universities, for example, or corporate labs -- but in broader ecosystems that combine these more traditional bodies with smaller networked groups. Another transformative example is in Maine, where the North Star Alliance Initiative -- a partnership involving small companies, the University of Maine, community colleges, and the state government -- is leveraging local research to spur the development of a wide range of other industries, including marine and waterfront infrastructure and ballistic armor.

A more holistic model of education will also be crucial. So far, unfortunately, the dominant U.S. policy response to this perceived global competition has been a single-minded focus on increasing the absolute number of scientists. Instead, the United States must think more broadly about the range of skills a scientist develops. Many future breakthroughs are likely to emerge from multidisciplinary work at the nexus of biology, physics, computer science, and mathematics. As a result, young entrepreneurs must be familiar with several different branches of the sciences, as well as be able to draw insights from design, psychology, economics, and anthropology.

Finally, the United States still retains the immense advantage of its connections with global innovation networks. A vast web of collaborative research, corporate alliances, foundation grants, personal ties, alumni groups, and government-to-government contacts tie the United States to established and emerging centers of scientific excellence. In 2005, for example, scientists in the United States were the most popular partners for Chinese and Japanese scientists in every field -- chemistry, physics, engineering, environmental technology, and biology -- but one: material science. And in that field, they were the second most popular choice for both their Japanese and their Chinese colleagues.

The goal, then, is to make sure the United States does not become complacent about these relationships. As the president noted in his State of the Union address, the United States must improve visa regulations, welcome highly skilled immigrants, and create clear paths to citizenship. Those who excel in school or start their own businesses should be encouraged to stay in the United States. At the same time, the United States will have to do more to reach out into the world. The National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health, for example, should develop programs that provide more international experiences for U.S. scientists -- and not just short trips, but extended sojourns in foreign labs.

Inevitably, more science and scientific discovery will occur abroad in the coming years. But as long as the United States maintains its comparative advantage -- an open and flexible culture and a web of institutions, attitudes, and relationships that move ideas from the lab to the marketplace -- there's no reason why the future isn't in its grasp.



Can the Nuclear Talks With Iran Be Saved?

Perhaps not, but here's a proposal worth trying.

The world's major powers are locked in a dead-end conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. Last week, talks in Istanbul between Iran and the five members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, ended badly, with no sign of a breakthrough on the horizon.

As the former head of safeguards for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), I have spent much of the past decade watching the ups and downs of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. In the last few years, the stalemate has only deepened. During that time, I have learned that proposals and counterproposals too often fulfilled either one side's concerns or the other's, making it difficult to start the process of cooperation. Here's a proposal that could let both sides break this impasse and start rebuilding the trust needed to get at bigger issues.

The Iranians have been enriching uranium to 3.5 percent U-235 for the last four years, flouting U.N. resolutions and Western sanctions. Last February, they also began enriching to 20 percent, sparking further concerns in the West that Tehran is working toward the capacity to make nuclear weapons.

Iran says it needs that higher-enriched uranium for fuel for its aging Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes for the country's hospitals. This is a widely recognized, legitimate need; every country relies on such radioisotopes, for example, in cancer treatment and other medical procedures. But the West is also legitimately concerned about Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent, not least because that gets Iran closer to the 90 percent enrichment required to make weapons-grade U-235. These concerns have grown as Iran has limited its cooperation with the IAEA and brushed aside questions about possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.

A tentative deal fell through last year that would have swapped much of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium for research reactor fuel that would have been produced by a Russian -- French -- U.S. consortium. Further talks have been inconclusive. And all the time, Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium continues to grow. It now has more than 3 tons, which should be sufficient, if further enriched, for one to two nuclear devices. In 2012, with the introduction of advanced centrifuges, Iran will be in a position to convert its current stock to high-enriched uranium in less than a year's time.

This troubling scenario is actually a golden opportunity for the United States and its partners to get together with Iran and agree to replace the TRR with a new reactor monitored by the IAEA.

The bottom line for Iran and the West is providing a secure supply of medical radioisotopes in a way that does not enable Iran to enrich uranium that could be diverted to a weapons program.

Iranians ought to be concerned about the safety of the TRR, which uses outmoded technology. It was located well outside Tehran when it was built in 1967, but the city's sprawling growth has seen apartment complexes and office buildings bump up against the research reactor site. And this is an earthquake-prone region.

Currently, Iran is constructing a heavy-water reactor in the city of Arak that is not best-suited for radioisotope production and that produces plutonium, which has raised proliferation concerns. But this reactor design could be modified to accommodate a new research reactor using low-enriched fuel instead. After all, when Iran announced the Arak reactor plan in 2003, its stated rationale was that the TRR was aging.

Then, last June, the Iranian government said it would design another research reactor, to be operational in five years. Ali Akbar Salehi, the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, did not disclose a location or specifics -- all the more reason to seek a comprehensive solution for Iran's research reactor projects.

The offer to help build a new, more secure research reactor to replace the TRR could revive the fuel swap program, in which Iran would agree to send more of its enriched uranium out of the country to be converted into fuel for the new reactor. The outcome would provide Iran with a solid supply of medical isotopes and a new, up-to-date training facility for its scientists. And it would address proliferation concerns by limiting the increase of stocks of enriched uranium and future production of plutonium.

There would be a gap of a couple of years in which isotopes would not be produced in Iran while the new reactor wasbeing completed. To meet the medical needs of the country, one interim solution would be to follow the approach taken by many other countries: Iran could buy raw material from the world market and prepare medical isotope kits in Tehran using current production facilities until the new reactor with up-to-date hot cells is operational.

A modern, more powerful research reactor will require a substantial part of Iran's current stocks of enriched uranium -- ensuring that they are not available for further enrichment for weapons -- and provide a secure, reliable supply of radioisotopes for decades to come. It would only be a first step, however. Iran will still need to address the world's broader concerns about the scope and intentions behind its nuclear program. But successful cooperation on a new reactor might make those conversations a little bit easier.

DON EMMERT/Staff, AFP/Getty Images