United States must innovate or abdicate, leaders warn

President John Hennessy has joined 142 prominent academic, business and political leaders in urging the United States to take serious steps to remain the world's leader in technological innovation.

On Feb. 8, the bipartisan group ran full-page advertisements in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post calling for increased funding for basic research and math and science education. The paid advertisements appeared on the heels of President Bush's "American Competitiveness Initiative" proposals in this year's State of the Union address to improve the training of science teachers, increase federal funding for basic research and enhance the climate for private investment in research and development.

Under the heading "Where in the world will the next big idea come from?" the ad warns of increasing competition from other nations: "The United States has long been the acknowledged world leader in innovation, a strength that is the foundation of America's national security and future job growth. But today, other countries are building world-class research and educational institutions are graduating increasingly qualified science and engineering students at a faster pace than ever before.

"Make no mistake: The search for scientific breakthroughs and new technologies will go forward whether we lead or follow," the statement reads.

The ad includes a link to the website of the National Innovation Initiative, a group that issued a report in late 2004 warning that "innovation will be the single most important factor in determining America's success through the 21st century." Hennessy helped draft the report.

Untapped U.S. resourceLonda Schiebinger, director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG), said women, who earn 57 percent of undergraduate degrees, represent a largely untapped resource for innovation. "Women earn 46 percent of math degrees at the undergraduate level but are not well represented at the professional level in mathematics, physics, engineering, computer science and other technical fields," she said. "We need reforms in those 'boy' cultures to keep women in the biz. It is not enough to let women in the door and then straitjacket them intellectually."

As highlighted at a Feb. 7 IRWG symposium on women and mathematics, Schiebinger said women have much to offer in terms of new ideas, new priorities for research and new ways of doing business. The institute, she said, has several research projects in progress that seek to improve academic and corporate cultures to allow women to flourish. "Related to these studies, the institute's report, Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering, will appear early next year," she said. "It goes where no man has gone before! Women represent a rich national resource that the U.S. cannot afford to leave undeveloped."