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Why Our Leaders Need to Change Their Focus NOW

Everyday we read headlines that probe the religious convictions of Supreme Court nominees, examine the intricacies of Sarbanes Oxley, uncover FEMA ineptitude, and speculate about the upcoming presidential elections. But who is speaking out about this country’s real future—our weakening educational system, our inattention to diminished service and training, and most importantly, the continued decline in the number of American scientists, patents and general technology expertise? Who is formulating strategies and putting together a plan and a timeline to rescue our country from its lethargy? And how do our corporate leaders fit into this equation? I believe that too many of our tower suite residents are overly focused on analysts’ expectations and their own golden parachutes. There’s an impending skills crisis in this country and we need our best and brightest to address it now.

Tom Friedman recently wrote in The New York Times that in Germany, 36% of undergrads receive degrees in science and engineering; in China, 59%; in Japan, 66%; and in America, only 32%. If that’s not enough to grab our leaders’ attention, how about the fact that U.S. 12th graders recently performed below the international average for 21 countries in math and science? And to cap it off, without foreign enrollment at the university level, we wouldn’t even be able to claim our current paltry six percent of graduates in science and engineering.

Mr. Friedman offers some solutions for the educational upgrading of our country’s students and teachers, including:
  1. Annually recruiting 10,000 science and math teachers by awarding four-year, merit-based scholarships.
  2. Strengthening the math and science skills of 250,000 other teachers through extracurricular programs.
  3. Creating opportunities and incentives for many more middle school and high school students to take advanced math and science courses.
  4. Increasing federal investment in long-term basic research by 10 percent a year over the next seven years.
  5. Annually providing research grants of $500,000 each.
  6. Granting automatic one-year visa extensions to foreign students in the U.S. who receive doctorates in science, engineering or math so they can seek employment here.

Other experts add that able students need to be carefully nurtured as early as junior high. Parental encouragement is the first step, followed by placement of students on a special science track as early as seventh or eighth grade, and lastly through the venerable (if not P.C.) solution that Americans often deploy in sports—competition among schools.

Is it nerdy to prize scientific and economic progress? Is it uncool to be the world’s intellectual supplier? In a commentary published in the Los Angeles Times, David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology and a Nobel prize winner
for his research on viruses, warned that our standard of living and our future as a world power are in jeopardy because we are locked into a “fortress mentality.” We aren't making the investments in education that are so essential to our future. He is concerned about a new, worrisome attitude where anti-intellectualism and the cult of the sound bite" is held out to be the status quo.

It’s no surprise that Bill Gates told a gathering of state legislators, that he predicts the current decline in tech-savvy professionals will continue and that it will extend to innovation. His concerns were seconded by G. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology who in an August 2005 told the Wall St. Journal, ““There is danger that the U.S. will no longer be dominant in innovation” and that “A larger number of international patents are being obtained overseas, and R&D facilities are moving overseas as well. If we are not innovating here, the economic benefits will go elsewhere too.”

Are we in outright crisis mode yet? If you’re a U.S. citizen who has come to value your nation’s global competitive advantage, the answer is “yes.” Anti-science bias is all around us, from the vocal anti-stem cell and anti-Darwin factions, to the unbridled ambition and apolitical embrace of science and technology our Asian and Indian friends pursue daily, we should be extremely concerned about the U.S.’s place in the global economy.

In my new book The 100 Mile Walk: A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership, co-authored with my 30-something creative director son, Jonathon, we walked 100 miles while discussing what it takes to lead. For shorthand, I call the nuggets of leadership shared with us by the many leaders we interviewed, the nine “Ps.” One of these Ps is paranoia—the habit of a great leader to worry about who is either right behind him or her or approaching from a distance. My son, with his Eastern outlook, calls it awareness rather than paranoia, but either way, watching your back affords you competitive advantage. It’s the nudge that forces you to adopt change faster and to advance risk-taking, both of which are essential to staying ahead of the competition and guarding the assets you have painstakingly accumulated.

Where are we headed as a nation? I can only hope that our national predilection toward paranoia will propel our government leaders, with the help of our corporate ones, to do everything in their power to get the U.S. educational system and workplace on the track of rapid technological and scientific innovation. Without some hyper-vigilance about the real issues we face today, the U.S. risks going the way of many once-great superpowers. Think of the dazzling technological and scientific innovations of ancient Rome. We now study that culture in a museum, rather than as a living entity, because the Romans took their superiority for granted.

It’s time for our leaders to wake up. I had to walk 100 miles before these ideas really sank in for me. But I guarantee that that my counterparts in Asia and India got it long ago. We need to take action before we go the way of the late, great Roman empire.