It is disappointing although thought-provoking to read “Maintaining a Competitive Edge” (C&EN, Dec. 12, 2011, page 24). Unfortunately, in just six years, the U.S. has slipped from the top position in global competitiveness to fifth in 2011. The U.S. now trails Switzerland, Singapore, Sweden, and Finland.
Although the U.S. is still the world leader in technological innovation and enjoys a dominant position among the world’s top 20 institutions of higher education, the drop in global competitiveness is alarming. According to the United Nations’ “Human Development Report 2011,” the four countries ahead of the U.S. have longer life expectancy at birth (from 82.3 to 80.0 years) than the U.S. (78.5). Also, the general population in these countries speaks at least one language besides their mother tongue. These two factors are, in part, indicative of the overall well-being of a nation’s citizens and its collective intellectual strength.
In a more challenging 21st century, a nation’s competitiveness on the global scale is vital to its most fundamental interest to prosper, and this competitiveness will increasingly be based on the development of human capital rather than on the development of natural resources. Thus, to invest better in people should be a key component to success for any nation. To sharpen the U.S. competitive edge, it may be worthwhile to consider a bottom-up approach that pays more attention to early education, to promoting second-language learning for every youth, and to further strengthening the K–12 education system—all difficult tasks.
The nation’s political leadership, and that of nonprofit and for-profit organizations, should recognize the urgency and importance of investing in people and the need to think more about how to rebuild our global competitive posture in the long term.
By Charles Rong