John Lechleiter of Eli Lilly has an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal on innovation in the US. Needless to say, he's worried:
A recent study ranked the U.S. sixth among the top 40 industrialized nations in innovative competitiveness, but 40th out of 40 in "the rate of change in innovation capacity" over the past decade. The ranking, published last year by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, measured what countries are doing—in higher education, investment in research and development, corporate tax rates, and more—to become more innovative in the future. The U.S. ranked dead last.
He goes on to say that we need a climate that appreciates new technology (which I certainly think we have), the financial system to support it (which is where he makes the case for favorable tax treatment), and the people who can do it. That's the longest single section of the whole piece:
The final and most important elements are the seeds of innovation, which equate to talented people and their ideas. Human beings—with their talent and energy, creativity and insights—are a priceless resource, but one that is woefully underdeveloped in this country.
There are three policies necessary to cultivate these seeds of innovation. First, with our kids falling further behind on international comparisons in education, we've got to get serious about broad improvement in science and math instruction in our grade schools and high schools.
Second, we need immigration laws that allow and encourage top scientists from other countries to choose to work in the United States. This does not entail drastic changes, but a sensible increase in visas for highly skilled immigrants and a shorter, simpler green-card application process.
Third, we need a well-funded basic research infrastructure within academic and government labs. What's required is not some new "Manhattan Project," but a long-term funding commitment necessary to attract more outstanding scientists to basic research and keep them engaged in productive work throughout their careers.
Well, there are going to be a lot of people reading this who will snort and say "Great, domestic science policy advice from Lilly, the company that's outsourcing everything short of what has to be picked up by a crane". And that call for better science education, together with the immigration reform paragraph, takes us into the "Danger! Undersupply of Scientists!" territory that drives many actual scientists crazy as they scan the employment ads and reformat their CVs.
I agree that science and engineering should be valued more in this country. But given our culture, what would make it so would be the perception that these fields are great places to have lucrative jobs, and that perception is currently taking an awful beating. Justifiably. So I'm not seeing this as a supply-of-scientists problem, as much as I see it as a shortage-of-ways-for-scientists-to-make-a-living one. . .