More partnerships among industry, academia, and the federal government are needed if the U.S. expects to maintain its position as a world leader in innovation, according to a panel of nine experts representing each of these sectors. The experts were speaking at a forum on U.S. competitiveness that took place last month in Washington, D.C. It was sponsored by Arizona State University’s “The Challenges Before Us” project, which aims to tackle societal challenges through open dialogue among experts, practitioners, and the community at large.
“I can’t think of a more appropriate time to be discussing this issue than the time we are at right now,” said moderator Jeffrey J. Selingo, vice president and editorial director of the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The U.S. economy is stuck in neutral, and our place in the global economy, which is struggling, is under question. I hope that today, through this discussion, we can generate some bigger questions and policy points that hopefully at some point can be part of our political discussion.”
The forum comes as the U.S.’s competitive edge is slipping. Its competitiveness ranking fell for the third consecutive year, landing it in fifth place among 141 other economies, according to the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2011–2012.”
The panelists said that the U.S. needs to invest in K–12 education, but they said the investment shouldn’t end there. “We often point to the K–12 problem, and we do need to strengthen K–12 education, but I think universities need to look in the mirror,” said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). He pointed out that first- and second-year science courses are often referred to as “weed out” courses. Instead of discouraging students from pursuing a degree in science or engineering, universities should do more to help students complete their degree and then connect them with companies, he said.
Companies can also do more to help academia prepare these students to work in industry, said William F. Kiczuk, vice president and chief technology officer at defense contractor Raytheon. “The number one thing we can do is work with academia to make sure they understand” what disciplines and skills sets industry needs, he said.
Jeniffer Harper-Taylor, president of Siemens Foundation, the nonprofit foundation of electronics firm Siemens, said the firm has more than 3,000 open positions that it hasn’t been able to fill because applicants haven’t had the necessary skills sets. For example, she said, companies are looking for people with skills in high-tech machinery.
Siemens is working with area colleges to help bridge this gap. “We’re having our engineers work in the colleges,” Harper-Taylor said. “We’re educating the educators on what they need to teach the students for them to be successful.”
Community colleges are an often-overlooked source of students who have received specialized technical training, according to Hrabowski. “We need to be making an investment in those students as well if they’re going to fill the gaps that we need for these high-tech jobs,” he said. “The American public really doesn’t understand how many great jobs there are available for people who go through community colleges and get that kind of training.”
Celia Merzbacher, vice president for innovation partnerships at Semiconductor Research Corp., stressed the importance of making co-ops and fellowships available to more students. “Getting undergraduate students involved in research, connecting them to graduate opportunities, and seeing them through to careers in industry can really help retain the students who are already interested” in science, she said. “It brings the students into a workplace environment and allows them to see the value of the work they’re doing.”
Students are not the only ones who will benefit from these partnerships, Hrabowski said. “I think you’re going to see more and more places like Arizona State, UMBC, and others that are working closely with companies,” he said. “The most enlightened institutions understand that … the stronger the ties with the companies and the federal agencies, the more interesting the work, the greater the opportunities for students, and the more money the institution can get.”
In addition, the scientific community needs to engage the public to increase its support of innovation, said Thomas Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. “One of the things you have to do is remind people of where the technologies they’re enjoying came from.” These technologies are “coming from long-term, high-risk investments in R&D that the federal government is making in our nation’s leading universities and our national labs,” he explained, adding that the resulting work is being picked up and commercialized by companies and entrepreneurs.