As the nation heads to the polls this week, we note that issues of U.S. competitiveness in technology have been disappointingly far from the eye of the campaign storm.
Intel CEO Craig Barrett offered a world travelers perspective on some of these questions at the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, where Barrett began a farewell tour before his planned departure as CEO next spring. Barrett took aim at U.S. education, research and tax policies, decrying a lack of interest in these issues as they affect our technology competitiveness.
Barrett asserted that theres greater enthusiasm for IT in nearly all the countries he visits than there is in the United States. He said many other countries desperately seek to attract high-technology companies, understanding the long-term impact of having tech jobs on their shores. Meanwhile, he said, U.S. politicians frequently seem to regard giving tax breaks to tech companies as a form of corporate welfare and an opportunity for election campaign grandstanding—even as hardware and software companies, Intel among them, respond to financial and marketplace realities by creating many new jobs abroad.
To the extent that its possible for the nations CEO to change things, this weeks presidential election—regardless of outcome—bodes at least some promise.
Both George Bush and John Kerry, for example, have shown favor toward tax credits for research and experimentation. Both have made appropriate noise about the importance of widespread broadband access and have indicated readiness to foster that goal with continued tax advantages.
The president must work, however, with Congress and the courts to turn visions into realities, and this election season has been weak on informed debate over the role of these other two branches of government in regard to technology policy.
The root of the problem, though, is at the level of popular perception. Tech policy has rarely been a hot-button electoral issue. It takes something like a sputnik from a rival country to shock Americans into action. But, as Barrett pointed out, a nations decay is a gradual process, and he clearly believes that the United States is in real danger of becoming a technology also-ran.
Likewise, progress is gradual. Initiatives such as education reform must be sustained for years before their effects can be felt. In particular, reforms at the critical K-12 stage may require a decade to make their effects apparent. The No Child Left Behind Act is an important first step and may help produce more scientists and engineers if we stick with it. In the meantime, when engineering students arrive from abroad, they should be encouraged to stay and work in the States.
Once the votes are counted, the president of the United States must use the bully pulpit to put technology leadership at the top of the national agenda. Its that important.
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