Science and national interest.

“Be as shrewd as snakes, and as innocent as doves.” – Jesus (Matthew 10:16, NIV)

“In capturing the rattler, to be fair, [Pecos Bill] gave it the first three bites.” – part of the legend of Pecos Bill

Across the United States, scientists, policymakers, academic- and business leaders are scratching their heads, puzzling over how best to maintain America’s place in the world of discovery, invention, and things new – especially as the stakes for success rise and people – and nations – don’t always play fair. Oddly enough, the way forward might lie in blending the attitudes of history’s Jesus and the legendary Pecos Bill toward threats.

Here’s why – starting with the backstory.

As recently as a few years ago, for the United States to hold its commanding lead in innovation seemed straightforward. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. primacy was unmatched, not just in terms of military might, economic power, or political influence, but in virtually every sector of scientific and engineering effort. This was particularly true in the development of information technology and its application for both societal benefit and individual gain. The United States increasingly outsourced actual manufacture of much of the requisite hardware abroad, but the new ideas, the designs, the business models were born here. A powerful, well-funded and extensive ecosystem of research universities fueled and sustained this preeminence.

We could see a few problems – seemingly small clouds on an apparently far-off horizon.

The largest of these? Our lagging K-12 public education, particularly as evidenced by student scores on standardized tests. According to the Programme for international Student Assessment (PISA), our 15-year-olds rank only 38th worldwide in math and 24th in science. What’s more, many American youth seemed more interested in gaming and the development of new business models for IT firms than mastering the underlying science and technologies.

Back then, that raised minimal concern. Foreign talent was pouring in – more than enough to fill in any gap. Worldwide, young people woke up each day wishing they’d been born in America. Some of the brainiest (and their parents) found ways and means to get here. Once within in our borders, they entered and excelled in our top universities. Once graduated, they stayed – to teach and do research of their own, to incubate new firms or make existing enterprises better. They put down roots – not just economically, but by establishing families, earning citizenship.

Other immigrants – perhaps not so financially favored or educationally equipped in their countries of origin, sometimes persecuted because they stood out, politically or ethnically, or both, but hungering for freedom and opportunity, and possessing the courage, energy, and strength of character needed to overcome the gravitational pull of their homelands – also made their way here. They plugged in where they could, shouldering menial, temporary, and seasonal work no one else would take on. They learned English and mastered job skills in whatever way they could and thus improved their circumstances. Through both nature and nurture they passed this drive on to their children. As a result, immigration had been continually infusing fresh blood and intellect, over the 243-year lifetime of the United States. America enjoyed not only a surplus of talent, but also a youthful demographic, especially compared to rapidly aging societies across Europe and in China.

That was then. Today the picture is different. The United States today looks to be a less-welcoming place, in both reality and reputation. Our borders have become and have been revealed as a Kafka-esque zone. Life inside those borders, though still the envy of most people worldwide, has never been perfect. Today every shortcoming and fault are repeatedly exposed and disseminated through social and news media (here’s an example). The advantaged of other countries increasingly decide to seek their educations and fortunes elsewhere. The world’s top universities are competing for students globally, in many cases setting up shop in the wealthier bits of the Middle East, and in big markets like India and China. Many students still come to the United States and stay, but more and more are seeing opportunities elsewhere, and many of those who come here for an education see alluring employment prospects back home – in the big, emerging markets of China, India, southeast Asia and Africa. They’re returning to their roots.

And they’re carrying their nascent innovative ideas back with them – often to countries and circumstances whose respect for and rules governing intellectual property are different from our own. This is the challenge facing the U.S. scientific, academic, political, and business establishment today. We amount to only 4% of the world’s population and therefore the world’s store of brainpower. We may have appeared uniquely desirable in terms of opportunity in the past, but we see a future where this uniqueness, and our leadership will likely be eroded.

One natural tendency in the face of this change is to circle the wagons – to tighten physical borders; to be more protective of intellectual property, especially around non-citizens; and to introduce more disincentives for U.S. trade, investment and outsourcing abroad. We come by this approach honestly. It’s well known about the human species that we are quickest to see the flaws in others that we ourselves possess. Here Americans have form. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, the United States benefited greatly by imitation (extending to actual theft?) of British industrial technology (we all remember this being recounted with some pride in our schoolroom U.S. history classes, but here’s a refresher). However, both social science and history tell us that while such a protectionist approach may buy time, it fails over the long haul. Ideas diffuse and spread every bit as inexorably as particles diffuse and waves propagate across physical media.

Wisdom demands we pay attention to legal protections. To do otherwise is to be naïve. But the fact is, danger lies in preferentially channeling the cleverest people in our population into the legal arts, rather than incentivizing creativity, ingenuity, and deep insight in everything we do more broadly. We risk lapsing into paranoia – getting more and more secretive and protective about less and less. Isolationism is a bankrupt strategy.

Instead – if we’re determined to stay on top – we need to go in the opposite direction. We should never lose sight of the reality that any swarm of collaborators contains a few more interested in stealing ideas than contributing in a positive way to advance the whole. But we should remain aware that in the process of generating new ideas and widely sharing them, we don’t ourselves run dry; rather we grow even more creative, gain even richer insights, attract a widening group of ever-brighter, more stimulating and energizing partners, and thus build greater capacity to innovate in the next round. It’s a virtuous spiral. By contrast, free riders and IP hacks are be forever consigned to playing catch-up – never amounting to better than second-best. Grasping that blends the wisdom and innocence Jesus characterized as being shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Grasping that, Pecos Bill didn’t fear the rattlesnake, didn’t think it necessary to contain him, but instead preferred to beat him at his own game.

Easy to comprehend all this from the sidelines. Also easy for the United States to maintain confidence and be magnanimous while enjoying a huge technological lead. What’s triggered the current case of jitters is growing awareness that (1) artificial intelligence promises to be existentially disruptive in the future scheme of things; and (2) China is catching up fast – in fact, just might be ahead – in terms of investment, and in terms of a huge-billion-plus population and little in the way of privacy concerns blocking the mining of their associated data to develop  and apply machine learning algorithms (take your pick of this news coverage to learn more).

Going forward, we can (and will) throw up roadblocks to competition here – whether from China or some other direction. But we might better return and refocus on the basics that got us here in the first place: (1) recommitting to the U.S. as a welcoming destination for anyone and everyone seeking freedom, equality, opportunity, a better life; (2) investing in our kids’ education, especially their critical thinking skills; and (3) honoring and rewarding innovation and creativity.

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