What happened to American innovation? The key is investing in education and research.

Author:Brody, William R.
 
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For the first time in a generation, both Congress and the White House proudly proclaim themselves to be pro-business. The change this has brought about has been dramatic. Many industries and sometimes even specific companies have been able to win more sympathetic hearings and friendlier legislation.

But in a rush to undo the worst of government regulation and intrusion, it will be a terrible mistake if we abandon our national commitment to do one of the things government has done best in the past 50 years--provide the sustained financial support of scientific research and discovery across all branches of knowledge.

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Ironically, we seem to be forgetting what made us great, just as other countries are catching on. In 2005, The World Economic Forum at Davos named the world's most competitive economy: Finland.

Who? It wasn't until Nokia surpassed Motorola and Japanese competitors to become the leading cell phone maker that the media paid much attention to Finland. But now we have come to discover that Finland is a world-class competitor. Two factors in particular support the Finns' achievements. First, they have what is largely acknowledged to be the best educational system in Europe. Finnish students, when tested, are the world's best readers and among the best in science and math. The second factor is that the Finns have an extraordinary commitment to research and development.

Through government and private industry, the Finns devote 3.5 percent of their gross domestic product to R & D, almost a full percentage point more than the total U.S. private and public research investment (which is 2.6 percent of GDP) and nearly double the average for Europe as a whole.

The lesson of Finland is the same lesson the United States taught the rest of the world in the past 50 years: Investment in education combined with investment in research and discovery pays enormous returns. I believe--and studies show--that national investment in education and R & D is probably the single best way we can address some of the most persistent and difficult challenges facing our nation today.

For example, we are all aware that our country has a huge trade deficit that ultimately may threaten our economic security. We have lived with this imbalance for years, driven in part by our thirst for imported oil. But the recent numbers are worrisome. Since the end of World War II, we have always maintained a positive balance of trade in high-tech exports. That...

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