Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,240th Meeting

President Kenneth Haapala called the 2,240th meeting to order at 8:16 pm September 12, 2008 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. The minutes of the 2,238th meeting were read and approved.

This was the Jules and Mary Enig Lecture, sponsored by Enig Associates, Inc. Eric Enig shared some memories and recounted some of the signal contributions of his parents to the Society, to science, and to the lives of many of us. Jules and Mary Enig were both presidents of the Society as well as active participants and contributors in other ways. Jules was a theoretical mathematician, Mary is a retired lipid biochemist. Mary is recovering from a car accident last July and hopes to be joining us soon.

Mr. Haapala then introduced the speaker of the evening, Norm Augustine, former Chairman of Lockheed Martin Corporation. Mr. Augustine spoke to the question: “Can America Compete in Science and Engineering?”

Mr. Augustine, hearing it was our 2,240th meeting, said he had “served on some government committees like that.”

Turning to the serious topic, he said that the 4% of us who are scientists and engineers disproportionately create jobs for the rest of us. Studies indicate that between 50 and 85% of the increase in America’s gross domestic product in the last half-century is attributable to advancements in science technology.

America does have a strong science establishment, including the finest universities in the world. But many, probably most, of the trends are in the wrong direction. In China, eight of the nine top political leaders are engineers. In the U.S. House of Representatives, more of the members call themselves actors and entertainers.

Only 200 million years ago, the earth only had one continent. The continents slowly drifted apart and had progressively less influence on each other. Now, in a few decades, economists say the continents have come crashing back together. This trend has been called “the death of distance.” Transactions no longer require parties to be close together. If you need to book a flight, you speak to someone in Bangalore or India. He went to a place recently where they had a woman on a display at a welcome desk. This woman was actually located in Pakistan. A patient in Strausborg, France, recently had a gall bladder removed by a surgeon in New York working by robot.

People in faraway places are hungry, highly qualified, and well educated. Far fewer jobs are safe than people realize. This started with factories. It migrated to software and is now migrating to professions including medicine and architecture.

If history teaches us any lesson, it is that no nation has an inherent right to greatness. Warren Buffet has said that the 21st century will belong to China. Today nearly 60% of the patents granted by the U.S. go to Asians. Two-thirds of the PhDs in engineering from our universities go to noncitizens. China already graduates more English speaking engineers than we do. Chemical plants are being closed rapidly in the U.S. and opened rapidly elsewhere. IBM has sold its PC business to a Chinese company. Bell Labs has been sold to a French firm.

The cost of labor is certainly an important factor in flattening the earth. In Mexico, you can hire nine workers for the cost of one here. In Viet Nam, you can hire 20.

How can we continue to compete in a world where others are willing to work hard for a fraction of what Americans are used to earning? The answer has one word – innovation. Research, fundamental research, must create new ideas. Engineers must take those ideas and turn them into products and entrepreneurs must get them into the marketplace before others do.

Where do we start on the problem? Alan Greenspan has remarked, “If you don’t solve the kindergarten through 12th grade education problem, nothing else is going to matter much.” We have some excellent schools, teachers, and administrators, but overall the system does not work well. We compare poorly with many nations in the results of our schools’ efforts although we spend more per student on public schools than all but two nations. We count on school administrators and teachers union repair our public schools. This works as well as sending lettuce by rabbit.

Forty-six per cent of the nation’s teachers leave the classroom within five years. The problems include lack of respect for the profession, lack of discipline in the classroom, the demanding work, and pay. It takes a teacher about 43 hours to earn $1000. A corporate CEO earns that in two hours, 55 minutes, Kobe Bryant makes it in five minutes, 30 seconds, and Howard Stern in 24 seconds. If we are willing to pay more to assure that the school has a good quarterback than we are willing to pay to assure that our children and grandchildren have good teachers, why should we be surprised that we get what we’ve got?

He told of a surgeon who called a plumber who fixed the plumbing in five minutes. “How much?” the surgeon asked. “$120.” “$120 for five minutes? That’s more than I make as a surgeon.” “It’s more than I made when I was a surgeon, too,” the plumber said.

Students are not doing well either. He told of a study that found that American students ranked near the top among 16 nations in how well they thought they were doing in science and physics. In actual test scores, they ranked near the bottom.

Societal values matter, too. In Russian movies, the engineer always gets the girl. In Hollywood, the engineer is usually a geek. Mr. Augustine said he met his wife in engineering school. Mrs. Augustine said her odds were good, but her goods were odd.

Societal values work the other way, too. Jerry Yang has said that Yahoo would not be an American company today if America had not welcomed him and his family 30 years ago. Data indicate, though, that younger scientists and engineers do not find the U.S. so welcoming.

Basic research is the engine that drives competitiveness. We are languishing in all fields.

Should industry pick up the slack? To some extent, it has, but industrial organizations usually don’t want to forego short term goals in favor of long term ones.

American firms now spend three times as much on litigation as research. General Motors now spends more on health care than on steel. That’s a serious competitive disadvantage.

After the talk, a questioner asked what these people should do about this. Mr. Augustine said the first recommendation of the National Academies Competitiveness Report was to award competitively 10,000 full scholarships every year to students who agree to study science or engineering and to teach five years in a public school when done. He also said we should try to influence our elected representatives, and he said often such input has considerable effect. He encouraged us to contact the “presidential camps.”

Another person asked what difference it makes where the scientists and engineers come from if American companies hire them. The problem is that these people increasingly prefer to live elsewhere and the companies that employ them tend to go where the best employees are located.

One commenter said the statistics Mr. Augustine presented don’t tell the whole story. American students are far more ready to challenge authority and therefore to make innovative contributions. Mr. Augustine acknowledged the point, but doubted that that strength would continue given the trends he cited.

He observed in response to another comment that the Congress has come to understand the problem better. He believes the Congress is now more receptive to the kind of message he gave us.

Mr. Haapala thanked Mr. Augustine and presented a framed copy of the meeting announcement. Mr. Augustine thanked us for using a picture that made him look 20 years younger and 30 pounds lighter. Mr. Haapala announced the next meeting. He made the parking announcement. He thanked Enig Associates for sponsoring the meeting. He made the parking announcement. Finally, at 9:33 pm, he adjourned the 2,240th meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 81
The weather: Muggy and cloudy
The temperature: 11°C

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary

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