TCS Daily


Geek Magnet

By James Ringo - April 5, 2006 12:00 AM

President Bush and the Democrats agree about at least one thing: a boost in America's competitiveness in high technology fields is needed. They join economists in a wide consensus that technical innovation and invention are a -- probably the -- surest long-term path to increased prosperity. Oddly, there is little discussion that the best American Competitiveness Initiative is simply to do what has worked well in the past: harvest the best from the world.

Past immigrants propelled the nation to world leadership in the high technology of their times. Andrew Carnegie (steel), Igor Sikorsky (helicopter), Nikola Tesla (electrical engineering) and Alexander Graham Bell (telephone) are examples.

More recently this trend has continued, perhaps even increased. Andrew Grove (founder and dynamo of Intel, Time's Man of the Year in 1997), Jerry Yang (co-founder of Yahoo) and Sergei Brin (co-founder of Google) being immigrants who have made major contributions to America's technological leadership.

Anecdotes and examples, however, aren't proof, as they may be exceptions to some rule. Instead, we need to look at some fair sample of the very best minds in America and ask if immigrants appear on such lists. Luckily there are two believable lists of the very brightest in high technology and science we can consult. To prevent cheating from picking and choosing lists until I found what I presupposed to be true, I took these two lists, and looked at no others.

The technology list is provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review, thought by many to be the best quality magazine in the field. Annually they provide a list of the world's 35 "top technology innovators" under age 35. The most recent list (Oct 2005 edition) includes 33 Americans. Clearly something is going right in high technology innovation in America. One obvious element of that achievement is the immigrant pool -- well over one-third of these brilliant innovators are immigrants to America.

As a list for the best minds in science, I simply used the Nobel Science Prize winners of the last 10 years (physics, chemistry and medicine). Of this group, 46 are Americans for whom I could find information on their family origins. Over one-fifth of these scientists are immigrants while another fifth were born in the U.S. from parents who immigrated to America.

These immigrants contribute to America's scientific and technical excellence in observable and direct ways. Additionally, they contribute by raising the bar for everybody, making the native born better. It used to be a sort-of joke at MIT that you could tell how hard a course was going to be by seeing how many Asian kids were in it. I have no idea if this was right, but it is clear that immigrants involved in high-tech and science are sharp folks and this added competition will raise overall performance of everyone.

As noted above, 33 of the 35 young, high-tech wizards selected by Technology Review are American. This occurred despite specific efforts on the part of the Technology Review staff to look outside the U.S. The American representation in the Nobel Prize group is not quite so dominant but is still impressive. Even though the Prizes are awarded by the Swedish National Academy of Science (not widely accused of favoring the US), 62 percent of the winners were American.

This American success in science and technology has a substantial component due to immigrants, and in turn, has positive consequences for immigration. Due to the success, many of the most talented, hard-working young scientists and techies want to come here. We should let more of them in. And it's free; or more accurately -- it's a boon.

James Ringo is a professor at the University of Rochester Medical School.

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14 Comments

The Chinese get it
Science literacy: The Chinese get it
by Dr. Len Peters
The Seattle Times, March 26, 2006

...The U.S. now imports more high-tech products than it exports. The number of American 18- to 24-year-olds with science degrees has fallen to 17th in the world, plummeting from third three decades ago. Only three American companies ranked among the top 10 recipients of patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2003.

...Everyone from Bill Gates to President Bush has advocated awarding more science and engineering degrees, more training of high-tech workers and additional research investments. These are all worthy goals, but they're the tip of the iceberg. If we want to steer the Titanic of American competitiveness out of danger, we also need to address the deeper, less-obvious issues underneath, and we all have a part to play.

...We don't live in China's top-down society, where leaders mandate a scientifically literate and trained citizenry and everyone falls into line to achieve it. American leaders are sounding the alarm, but not much can happen without a groundswell of support from citizens. Each of us has the responsibility to take a personal interest, as well as to drive parents, teachers, community leaders, elected officials and, ultimately, policymakers, to change things.

The U.S. science push in the Sputnik era was driven by fear of military superiority by an enemy. Now, we're faced with a different but no-less-compelling threat: the possibility of economic decline for our children and grandchildren. We must rebuild the momentum we once had if we hope to maintain the quality of life that we take for granted.

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2002887594_sundaypnnl26.html

Dr. Len Peters is director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and senior vice president of Battelle, which operates PNNL for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Incentives
If we really want more scientists and engineers, and I don't believe that we do. The simple solution is to pay them more.

The salaries in these professions are mediocre at best. Nurses make more than almost any scientist. The only people in these fields are those who love the subject.

Be a lawyer, a doctor, a vet, open a small business, or any number of other things and you'll make more and work less. Why would anyone encourage their kids to suffer in these dead-end jobs? :) What are you gonna be after 20 years... whooo... a senior scientist... maybe get tenure. Wow. Meanwhile a high-school drop out with a gutter guard business is retiring with a Porsche at 45.

minimum wages
Demanding that companies pay scientists and engineers more, is a good way to ensure that most future scientists and engineers will have Indian and Chinese last names.
(And live in India or China)

Asuming there is an issue, I do not think there is, but, there are three things to do.
I do not think the reports are accurate about some techno shortage. If there were a shortage then salaries of techno types would be going up faster than other professional types like lawyers, doctors and the like. This is especially for

Back to my list of things to do:
First and easiest: Simply give more visas and award citizenship to more techno men and women from outside the country. The country is filling with "Undocumented" folks anyway so lets get some "Documented" folks here with technical skill. Instead of the 50000 to 100000 techno visas, how about 2million techno visas.

Second:
Lessen patent protection to a few years from 17 years. Then, techno types would be able to use patented material sooner to develop new stuff.

Third:
If you want a more technical stuff then reduce the cost of regulation on technical enterprises. You can reduce these costs in a myriad of ways. Here are some examples: Stop antritrust foolishness and let technical companies go hog wild buying eachother. End Sarbanes Oxley for technical companies and everyone else. Stop forcing companies to waste time finding terrorists and other law breakers instead of promoting their business.

Deming
The US has never had a problem creating high technology. They just have had a hard time implementing that technology in a cost effective way.
Deming and Juran, both Americans who helped the US win the war by implementing high quality standards, taught the Japanese how to implement quality. They listined and Americans did not.
GM and Ford may create many new technologies for implementation into thier cars, but they can't make cars people want or they cannot make them reliable and cost effectively.
The need is not on the technology side it is on the management side to empower their workers to satisfy thier customers every day.

No
I was trying to say that companies are voting with their pocketbooks that more of these people are not wanted.

If *you* want more of them, *you* should pay them more. :)

Personally, I don't want them and I'm not paying for them.

I am, on the other hand, hiring Oracle developers at a fierce rate and their salaries show it... Ouch! The ones I interviewed today will start at about twice what most scientists make. The market measures and we obey...

issues
The salary of technical folk are affected not just by the supply of technical folk here in the US, but technical folk all around the world.

1) Agree

2) On the other hand, shortening the patent protection makes patents less valueable to manufacturers. When things are less valueable, they spend less money pursuing them. One hand gives, and the other takes away.

3) Agree

Who wants more scientists?
The people pushing hardest to grind out more scientists and engineers are those working in science and engineering colleges. It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out why.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently about an advertised engineering job that drew hundreds of applicants. The job specs were written so tightly that only a very few engineers met all the qualifications. That works well for the employer, but leaves hundreds of applicants "not suitable". In many fields, we have a glut of scientists and engineers.

We probably have an over-supply of political scientists!

Market vs. America
A global free market is not one that necessarily looks after America's interests. For example, foreign auto manufacturers were more astute in anticipating consumer trends, to the determinent of GM, Ford and Chrysler. So it's no coincidence, then, that engineers and scientists have a more important role at Honda and Toyota, etc.

SAE adds job hopes for laid-off engineers
The Detroit News, April 3, 2006

Automotive engineers haven't had much to be happy about lately. Jobs are being slashed throughout the industry as General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. restructure, and Delphi Corp., Dana Corp., Tower Automotive Inc. and other parts makers struggle through bankruptcy.

While U.S. automakers and suppliers are cutting back, many companies -- from Asian carmakers to small tech companies -- are trolling for engineers. And a number of them will be recruiting at the SAE career fair today through Thursday at Cobo...

...Gardner said many workers will have a difficult time jumping from a U.S. automaker to an Asian rival because the skills are different. Workers may have better luck either checking with auto suppliers or with companies outside the auto industry.

...Mike Crutchfield of Milford will most likely be among those attending the SAE career fair. The engineer was laid off from GM last week after 22 years. Crutchfield, 56, said he would like to continue working in the auto industry, but WOULDN'T TAKE ANOTHER JOB AT A U.S. AUTOMAKER. "If I could get into an area like Honda or Kia or Toyota, that would be a good thing," he said.

http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/
20060403/AUTO01/604030347/1148/rss25

Market vs. American???
You're way off base here. My two Hondas prove it. These, um, foreign cars (both made in North America) were a great value. They've held up well and held their value well. Probably the best two cars I've ever owned.

GM and Ford's problems are not that they are American companies getting killed by durned foreigners. They're bad companies getting killed by good competition.

Ask the world's IT companies how they like getting crushed by the Microsoft and IBM's of the world. Woe is me, the Americans are having their lunch and everyone must find a new job. Life is change. Be prepared to add value and change careers if you think you must. These *poor* autmotive engineers have a great opportunity to reinvent themselves as something relevant and hopefully they can redeem themselves for making some truly bad cars.

Nobody in IT is moaning anymore. We've absorbed the glut we had after the dot com bust and everyone I know is whining about all the recruiters calling all the time. I'm tired of all this gloom. Time to make some money.

Appreciating good design
I completely agree with your assessment. Yes, GM & Ford are bad companies getting killed by good competition -- and one very significant reason is the relative importance engineers and scientists have in the different auto companies.

Crafting a pickup: Ex-GM engineer designed Ridgeline the Honda way
AutoWeek, June 14, 2005

...A core team of 37 engineers, led by Gary Flint, did the engineering design work on the truck over about four years. In one of his assignments at GM, Flint helped engineer the Chevrolet S10 pickup.

"Compared to General Motors, (the Ridgeline's cost) is peanuts," Flint says. "But that's why we make money. We are very, very frugal and very, very careful ... It's an extremely different mind-set between Honda and General Motors."

Says Lindsay Brooke, a senior analyst with CSM Worldwide, "for decades, they've mastered the art of developing new vehicles without creating all-new ones, using many carryover parts and common assembly processes."

...Honda engineers can't just show their bosses diagrams and drawings. They have to design parts that solve problems. "During the Ridgeline's development I spent an hour every Saturday morning at Home Depot with my tasty beverage, and I watched people load things in the parking lot," Flint says.

http://www.autoweek.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050614/
FREE/506140702&SearchID=7323646457928

Here we can agree
I think the single thing that's lacking in many companies, foreign and domestic, is discernment. The ability to know if something is adding value or not. This is particularly true in human resources.

There are many people who could really make a difference if their ideas would be adopted, and there are also many people whose ideas should never be adopted. Often companies decide based on their perception of the individual not on the strength of the idea.

There are some truly great engineers out there, but I think most of them are ignored.

more
companies are highering more, it's just that they are hiring them in other countries, where the expected pay is lower.

These other scientists and engineers compete with Americans already. The question is, for Americans, is it better for them to compete from over there, or over here?

My argument to you disagreement on 2 is:
The reason I recommend reducing patent times is that other techno folks and organizations need the stuff from the patent to develop new products. If companies just sit on patents then we are losing innovation. The idea of a patent was not that it has value but that it protects the inventor from competition. These inventors are not competiting with anyone on anything but just waiting for someone to make a product or service that is close enough to their patent to allow them to sue.

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