Aftermath of Hurricane Andrew- NOAA Library
To anyone not familiar with the previous “Gathering Storm” report from 2007, the new update by the National Academies entitled Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 might sound like another report on the dangers of climate change, dependence on fossil fuels and/or the challenges of decarbonizing the economy. But climate and carbon are not the focus of the report. More on that in a minute. First a quick refresher on what a Category 5 Storm entails. From NOAA:
Catastrophic damage will occur; People, livestock, and pets are at very high risk of injury or death from flying or falling debris, even if indoors in mobile homes or framed; Almost complete destruction of all mobile homes will occur, regardless of age or construction; A high percentage of frame homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Extensive damage to roof covers, windows, and doors….; Nearly all windows will be blown out of high-rise buildings resulting in falling glass, which will pose a threat for days to weeks after the storm; Nearly all trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed; Hurricane Andrew (1992) is an example of a hurricane that brought Category 5 winds and impacts to coastal portions of Cutler Ridge, Florida..
If the approaching Category 5 storm is a metaphor and it’s not about global change per se, then what is the focus? In a word: competitiveness. How can the U.S. maintain its competitive edge, however tarnished in recent years, in the globalized economy? The original 2005 report made recommendations that emphasized the imperative of investing in science and technology education, research and development. The new report is as much a lament as an update since,as the authors note, the situation is worse now.
But can our education system and lack of investment in research and development really be compared to an approaching Category 5 hurricane? Is it really that bad? According to the authors, who include those involved with the 2005 report with a few additional experts such as the Secretaries of Defense and Energy Robert Gates and Steven Chu, the situation is going from bad to worse; hence the metaphor. A few factoids from the report:
-The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th in quality of mathematics and science education.
-United States consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the government devotes to energy R&D.
-In the 2009 rankings of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation the U.S. was in sixth place in global innovation-based competitiveness, but ranked 40th in the rate of change over the past decade.
-Sixty-nine percent of United States public school students in fifth through eighth grade are taught mathematics by a teacher without a degree or certificate in mathematics.
-Ninety-three percent of United States public school students in fifth through eighth grade are taught the physical sciences by a teacher without a degree or certificate in the physical sciences.
-The United States ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.
-Since 1995 the United States share of world shipments of photovoltaics has fallen from over 40 percent to well under 10 percent—while the overall market has grown by nearly a factor of one hundred.
And that’s just for starters.
The report also notes that the only real investment since 2005 toward the original recommendations has been the Stimulus package, which is short term and nearly spent out. Moreover, the America COMPETES Act, which was one of the outcomes of the original report, is set to expire this fiscal year; thus far the Senate has not re-authorized it.
The authors, obviously frustrated, pull no punches, evidently hoping that spreading the alarm will work in getting the nation (or at least policy-makers) to wake up and dig deep to prepare for the storm. From the Executive Summary:
It would be impossible not to recognize the great difficulty of carrying out the Gathering Storm recommendations, such as doubling the research budget, in today’s fiscal environment…with worthy demand after worthy demand confronting budgetary realities. However, it is emphasized that actions such as doubling the research budget are investments that will need to be made if the nation is to maintain the economic strength to provide for its citizens healthcare, social security, national security, and more. One seemingly relevant analogy is that a non-solution to making an over-weight aircraft flight-worthy is to remove an engine…
The Gathering Storm report assessed America’s position with respect to each of the principal ingredients of innovation and competitiveness—Knowledge Capital, Human Capital and the existence of a creative “Ecosystem.” Numerous significant findings resulted—for example, with regard to Knowledge Capital it was noted that federal government funding of R&D as a fraction of GDP has declined by 60 percent in 40 years. With regard to Human Capital, it was observed that over two-thirds of the engineers who receive PhD’s from United States universities are not United States citizens. And with regard to the Creative Ecosystem it was found that United States firms spend over twice as much on litigation as on research. However, the most pervasive concern was considered to be the state of United States K-12 education, which on average is a laggard among industrial economies—while costing more per student than any other OECD country.
So where does America stand relative to its position of five years ago when the Gathering Storm report was prepared? The unanimous view of the committee members participating in the preparation of this report is that our nation’s outlook has worsened…
The Gathering Storm Committee’s overall conclusion is that in spite of the efforts of both those in government and the private sector, the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years.
The Gathering Storm increasingly appears to be a Category 5.
And that’s without adding climate and global change, energy, unemployment into the mix.
All hands on deck! Batten down the hatches!