Jan 27, 2009

Could Silicon Valley become the next Detroit?

While Pittsburgh has somewhat recovered from the death of the steel mills in the 1970's, Detroit is a different story. Where will the next dead/dying industry be? Has anyone considered Silicon Valley?

Emphasis on science and technology in the US is very inadequate in comparison to countries like India or China. Top executives at Hewlett-Packard, are ringing an alarm bell not just for HP, but for the entire U.S. tech industry. They say that unless we boost government spending on science, technology, engineering and math -- STEM, in industry jargon -- we will be unable to keep up with countries such as China and India.

Williams, a Ph.D. chemist at HP, has spent the past decade pleading with Congress to devote more funding to research and education in the sciences. So far it hasn't happened.

Last year, on a trip to India, he kept running into Indian scientists who earned Ph.D.s in the United States and worked here, but had recently returned to India -- not for sentimental reasons, but because they wanted their kids to grow up in a place with the best opportunities, and, shockingly enough, in their minds the United States was no longer that place.

Soon after, Williams traveled to China, where the government is creating the world's largest nanotechnology research facility and dishing out grants of as much as $100 million to veteran scientists. One woman he met, a 28-year-old fresh out of graduate school, had been given $5 million to pursue nanotech research. "In the United States," he says, "a young assistant professor would struggle to raise $50,000, let alone $5 million."

In Williams's lab at HP, only 18 of the 75 scientists were born in the United States, and 10 of those American-born researchers are over 50 years old; only six are under the age of 35. For now, HP can rely on foreign-born scientists, but "what happens when those people stop wanting to come here?" Williams asks. "That's the scary part."

Williams got through college and grad school in the 1970s thanks to government grants. He reckons he was a good investment. Through taxes, he's paid back the government many times over.

"Technology has been paying the bills in this country," he says. "It's delivering all of the innovation and the profits in the United States. The IT industry has created the wealth that we're enjoying now. But because the industry is doing well, it gets neglected.

I'm going to try and help in my own small way. The IEEE has a set of 'Lesson Plans' for their "Teacher In-Service" Program.

I've looked at several of these and they are quite good. Not sure of the reception, but I may plan on approaching the teacher at my kids school and see if they are open to doing something like this during National Engineering Week (Feb 15th thru 21st)

It will be interesting to see the kind of reception I'll get!? Stay Tuned


chollaball said...

an interesting perspective. I'm not sure I buy it, more for a gut reason than any other. Many of my team at work are not US-born, but they still come here. Science and compSci are different, however, and as a nation we do not place enough emphasis on science compared to the Indian model. I've never felt govt. funding per se was the answer, but it is a great way to kickstart things. I think creative people want to be around others, and except for maybe Russians, US programmers are the most creative I've met. My office is now at SkySong which ASU is trying to make a magnet facility - so that is much more the private model at work.

tims said...

I've worked with a few Eastern bloc guys and they are scary smart! You sic them on the hardest problems and see what happens! I think you nailed another aspect of it.. (the creative/technical 'vibe') and wanting to be around like minded people.

I've seen members of our staff come and go (back to India, then back stateside, etc:) I've not really talked at length to them about their preferences for the US versus their homeland.. I should.

A few tax breaks to encourage R&D would be helpful, better yet, access to college tution, grant, or low cost loans for folks going after 4 year accredited Science or Engineering degrees would be a help perhaps? The price of college is in the 'stratosphere' compared to what it was when I attended in the 1980's!

I still plan to go through a few of those activities with my kids, or better yet with their class at school. Not enough of this is done at an early age to help them understand the 'whys and hows' of math and the way things work IMHO.

Pose the question: Why can a frog jump higher/farther than a Lizard?

Discuss: Levers, moment arms etc:

It doesnt have to be an 'abstract machine'

Heck it could be the suspension on your Mtn. Bike for that matter! :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim,

Didn't know you had a blog. Don't let boss lady DH find out;-)

I agree that we suck at educating for STEM in the US. However, I won't blame the schools entirely. I think we're a victim of our own success in that young people have the benefit of our wealth and then squander it, forsaking what earned that wealth ... hard work. I don't see a sense of urgency or a real work ethic in young American kids these days. Just spend their time on Facebook (nothing against Facebook, just against spending time socializing).

Also, gone are the days when you could learn what you need to know for your career in University. You need to learn to adapt and to learn new things more than Maxwell's equations. Stuff changes too quickly.

tims said...

Hi Harry!

I dont really talk about work on this blog.. it's only personal stuff so I should be okay :) Thanks for watching out for me though!

I kind of agree, but then again, you also are sounding a bit like 'our' parents generation.

Look at the incentives in society? Sports, Law, Business, Medicine? Legal and Medical professions are a ton of work. Engineering is as well, but I dont think as a career, it's as repected here in the US.

I've worked with guys that are really really good just coming out of school, and others that take no effort to find the answer. It's a mixed bag I'd say.

As for Univ? the way tuition has gone up over the past several decades, you'd think that the curriculum would have changed more.. it hasnt.

The pace of innovation has sped up, so should the content of what consists of a College degree. A healthy desire to learn new things and understand how things work is also extremely helpful for being succesful in this field.

Check out "The Last Lecture" by the late Randy Pausch. That small book really embodies to me, what it's like to be an engineer, to be someone with a passion for life and learning.

Change is good.. Change is fun!
BTW I'm on Facebook too DOH!