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.