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Can we meet the innovation challenge?

3 February 2011
by Brian Keeley

Some interesting thoughts from the Financial Times’ John Gapper on the innovation challenge facing governments in the wake of the recession. Referring to the OECD’s Andy Wyckoff , he notes that “countries such as Finland and South Korea responded to past economic crises by investing in education and R&D”. Indeed, he says, “everyone has an innovation policy these days”. But does the reality match up to the rhetoric – are government policies really doing enough to promote “the industries of tomorrow” (as they called them back in the ’60s)?

Gapper has doubts. He identifies several challenges, but two in particular stand out. The first is financial – state-led investment in science and technology, the results of which eventually make their way into the private sector. An example: “The web browser was invented at Cern, the European physics laboratory,” writes Gapper, “yet its commercial possibilities were exploited by companies including Google.” In the 1960s and ’70s, the justification for much state investment in the West was the Cold War – the original “Sputnik moment”. Today, that no longer exists. However, says Gapper, the biggest innovation challenge “is not financial but human”: “China enrols 15% of the world’s university students and 40% of new degrees there are in science and engineering, compared with only 15% in the US,” he writes. “Meanwhile, 68% of US engineering doctorates are now awarded to non-US citizens.”

That concern picks up on one of the hottest debate topics of the moment: The education performance of developed countries vs. East Asia. Much of the recent debate centres around the results from the OECD’s most recent round of PISA student assessments, which placed the Chinese city of Shanghai in first place. Not only that, 7 of the top 11 places for student performance were in East Asia. Also stirring debate is the now-notorious Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother  by Amy Chua, a Yale law professor from a family of Chinese immigrants and signed-up member of the tough-love school of parenting. Many people in U.S. find Chua and her approach alarming, notes Elizabeth Kolbert  in The New Yorker. But, at the same time, when they look at the results from PISA and the achievements of Chua’s own daughters, they can’t help but wonder about their education system – concerns that are probably shared in many other developed countries. In Kolbert words, “How is it that the richest country in the world can’t teach kids to read or to multiply fractions?”


Useful links

OECD Innovation Strategy

Programme for International Student Assessment – OECD PISA

OECD: Boosting Jobs and Skills

OECD Insights: Human Capital

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Luke Collins permalink
    February 3, 2011

    What’s interesting about this debate is that it seems to assume that the future of the future is the past, that the way for modern economies to thrive is for them to do what they used to do, only to do it better.

    I don’t know what the future of the future really is, but I wonder whether the way that the debate is now being framed is as if it were the 1830s in the UK and we were all worrying about the loss of skills in agriculture to the cities and industrialisation. Something has to come next – the future of society isn’t necessarily more of the same, but done more intensely.

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