TCS Daily

Edgy About Innovation

By Charles Matthew Rousseaux - April 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Sharp minds are the source of cutting-edge technology; the innovations they've produced are the wellspring of U.S. supremacy. Those benefits will be lost if innovative minds are blunted by bad bills, blundering bureaucracies or even bogus branding.

Patrick Gelsinger, the Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Intel Corporation is concerned that the nation is losing that edge. He has both the technical bright (he has a masters in electrical engineering from Stanford and holds several patents) and the business sight (he became a senior vice president at age 32, the youngest in company history) to be worried.

In a recent interview, Mr. Gelsinger addressed reasons to be edgy about U.S. innovation. Although it gives fiscal conservatives heartburn (and to be gender neutral, hot flashes) to think about, one of the biggest threats to technical acumen in the physical sciences is fiscal tightfistedness. Federal spending on the life sciences has increased substantially since 1970 (it has skyrocketed since the mid 1990's), but over the same time period, federal spending on engineering, math and computer science and the physical sciences has remained relatively flat.

In recent years, India, South Korea, China and other nations have become extremely aggressive in developing technical talent, according to Mr. Gelsinger. China in particular has been using infusions of capital investments to invigorate its scholarship in the sciences. They're succeeding. Mr. Gelsinger said that China is now matriculating more Master's and Ph.D. engineering students than the United States.

The National Science Foundation's report, "Science and Engineering Indicators 2002" confirms the situation. It noted that other nations "are building up the natural sciences and engineering capabilities of their younger cohorts at a greater rate than the United States has been able to achieve."

There are many self-evident reasons that U.S. undergraduates prefer prose to pocket-protectors. Even if the stereotypes of scientists are untrue, duct-taped glasses rarely denote an in-demand dating life. As Mr. Gelsinger -- who, for the record, is married, has four kids, and has no trace of duct tape on his person -- acknowledged, the public persona of a scientist is a geek, not a leader. He said that that perception had to be shifted, particularly for women (and minorities), who are rarely seen around laboratories, much to the chagrin of their lonely male counterparts. Yet without the academic efforts of women, minorities and most importantly non-U.S. citizens, the number of Ph.D.'s awarded in science and engineering over the last thirty years would have at best been stagnant. It might have declined.

Bringing new science students across U.S. borders now borders on the impossible. To prevent sensitive technology transfers (and worse) foreign science students usually undergo a security check called "Visas Mantis." A General Accounting Office (GAO) study of the situation released in February found that Visas Mantis procedures took an average of 67 days. Those long waits are compounded by small numbers of permanent visas. Mr. Gelsinger pointed out that this year's quota of permanent visas has already been used up. No matter how they might enrich the nation (Mr. Gelsinger said that about half of the entrepreneurial success stories in Silicon Valley are thought to be of non-U.S. origin) no other individuals with needed skills in demanding sciences will be granted permanent stays this year.

Insourcing more foreign science students is preferable to raising barriers to outsourcing. Mr. Gelsinger is strongly opposed to protectionist policies, "Anything that raises protectionist barriers will backfire on us." On that front he's in the good company of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who recently told a Congressional committee, "What has made the American economy great is that we allow ourselves to be exposed to more competition than virtually anyone else in the world."

Mr. Gelsinger is also concerned about the Financial Accounting Standard Board's (FASB's) mandate that all companies begin expensing stock options by 2005. He said that the rule is both bad accounting -- the expense could have a different value in the future than it does today -- and bad policy, taking away a critical element in the ability of companies to cultivate and compensate creative, innovative talent. Instead of the FASB's "knee-jerk" reaction, Mr. Gelsinger suggested that Congress take the more surgical approach of requiring the expensing of stock options for just a company's top five executives. Eighty-five representatives ranging from House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi to Majority Whip Rep. Roy Blunt have co-sponsored a bill (H.R. 3574), which would do exactly that.

To better encourage U.S. innovation, Mr. Gelsinger would like to see lawmakers do three things: Double the budget of the National Science Foundation, make the research and development tax credit permanent, and fully fund the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Mr. Gelsinger also sees a future world in which silicon networks switch information at the speed of light and where wireless sensor networks provide services ranging from precision agriculture to proxy care of senior citizens.

If policymakers help America hone its technical edge, there's indeed hope for an innovative, Intel(-ligent) future.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times and a frequent TCS contributor. He recently wrote for TCS about Asteroids and Oorts.


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