In tough times, technology companies often curtail research and development of new technologies and products. Too often, such cutbacks are penny-wise and pound-foolish: while they reduce expenses in the short term, they may also seriously damage a company's ability to compete in the long term.
Sadly, this kind of shortsightedness can also be seen in the United States' education funding policies. In response to shortfalls caused by the current downturn, states are slashing education spending: in December, the Florida Legislature passed a cutback of nearly $640 million, and California's governor has requested reductions of more than $840 million. It is disturbing that, as a nation, one of our first responses to a downturn is to cut education spending. This is of particular concern because pre-college education in the U.S. already falls short of that provided by many countries—U.S. Department of Education statistics show that U.S. eighth graders perform significantly worse in math and science than their counterparts in countries like Korea and Belgium.
Have we already forgotten that the unprecedented U.S. economic expansion of the 1990's was driven largely by American technological innovations? Can we fail to make the connection between a well-educated work force and the nation's economic prospects? Consider the consumer electronics industry: at one time, the U.S. played a major role in the design and manufacture of products like televisions. Over time, other countries gained superior technical expertise, and the U.S. role dwindled. In recent years, though, digital signal processing has enabled something of a revival: U.S. companies, based largely on their mastery of DSP, have regained a significant role in designing—and in some cases manufacturing— products like digital home audio equipment.
Make no mistake about it: U.S. engineers have been remarkably successful in developing innovative technology not because we are any smarter than our counterparts in other countries, but because we have been provided with the appropriate tools—and education is primary among these tools. If we are to maintain a vibrant national technology industry, we must ensure that successive generations of Americans are equipped to succeed in an increasingly competitive world economy.