Is America Ready? Investment Levels in Education and Research Raise Questions About U.S. Economic Competitiveness


Dr. Craig Barrett giving a speech at a podiumDr. Craig Barrett

Market shares are won and lost during periods of great transition. And with the addition of nearly three billion people into the free market economy from liberalized countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, competition in the 21st century is—simply put—tough. If the United States wants to maintain its preeminent position in the world economy, a status it has enjoyed since the end of WWII, it needs to get serious about growing the nation’s science and engineering workforce and investing heavily in research and development. 

That was the core message delivered by Dr. Craig Barrett, the fourth speaker in the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series. Stevens Institute of Technology community welcomed the former chairman and CEO of Intel Corporation on April 23, 2014 for a talk entitled, “Economic Competitiveness in the 21st Century.” Stevens' DeBaun Auditorium was nearly filled to capacity with faculty, students, alumni and distinguished guests, including U.S. Representative Rush Holt (NJ-D-12); Christopher Daggett, chairman and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer.

In an hour-long speech, Dr. Barrett presented a stark and unvarnished picture of an America that is severely challenged to compete against rising economic powers. In illuminating detail, Dr. Barrett cited leading indicators that show that the nation’s economic slide began long before the financial meltdown of 2008. At the same time, Dr. Barrett emphasized the strengths that have made the United States an economic superpower and how to take steps to secure America's long-term economic prosperity.

Looking forward, he said, the winners and losers of the 21st century economy will be determined by investments in education, research and development, and setting the right environment for innovation. “The 21st century is a century of technology,” said Dr. Barrett. “It’s about biotech, it’s about new materials, it’s about IT, and communication. It’s about all those areas of innovation around us. So you’re either involved with that, or you’re not.”

The American research university has always played a central role in the country’s matrix of innovation. Dr. Barrett, who was given a tour of the Stevens campus earlier in the day, remarked that engineering research facilities like Stevens are the “most fascinating places to visit” in the United States. Russia, China and countries in the Middle East are all trying to replicate the American model, he said.

But Dr. Barrett, a leading advocate for improving education, warned that even this national treasure has cause for concern when looking at its major supplier for incoming students: K-12 public schools. Despite “pockets of brilliance,” Dr. Barrett said the biggest threat to the country’s economic future is the overall poor quality of K-12 education in the United States. “You can’t have a prosperous country without a knowledgeable workforce.”

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of the world's richest economies, high school students in the United States consistently rank far below their counterparts in many other industrialized nations, most notably in Asia, in math, reading and science.

Dr. Barrett, who is president and chairman of BASIS School Inc., a charter school group in Arizona, argued that K-12 public schools in the United States are too focused on inputs such as teacher certification, rather than on outcomes like test results that demonstrate student learning. By creating competition, he said that charter schools force public schools to change for the better.

Despite the troubling signs, Dr. Barrett said there is reason for optimism when it comes to reforming K-12 public schools. He is a strong supporter of Common Core, a national initiative to establish consistent standards across the states on what students are expected to learn at each grade level.

Another positive sign that Dr. Barrett points to is the increased role of universities such as Stevens in the K-12 public education arena. Nurturing interest among K-12 students in STEM opportunities is one of the strategic priorities in Stevens' strategic plan, The Future. Ours to Create. The university’s Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) has become a national leader in K-12 engineering education and STEM education research. 

Aside from fixing the nation’s public education system, Dr. Barrett stated that the federal government’s failure to create the conditions necessary for innovation will slow economic growth in the country for years to come. The last great economic surge in the United States, he said, occurred during the administration of President Bill Clinton, and that was largely due to the transformative impact of the Internet. As he pointed out, the Internet was the invention of government research and a prime example of the federal government’s essential role in funding basic scientific research. That role, he said, cannot be filled by private industry, where fierce competition pushes companies to focus primarily on applied research and product development.

Returning to his theme that market shares are won and lost during periods of transition, Dr. Barrett said that if the United States could get ahold of something like the Internet again, it could gain market share. “Technology will give us transition after transition going forward.”

But while more and more countries are increasing their national R&D budgets, the United States is going in the opposite direction, a trend that greatly alarms Dr. Barrett. “I am amazed that an Intel or Microsoft has an R&D budget greater than the National Science Foundation.”

In examining the world competitive landscape, Dr. Barrett urged audience members, which included leaders from government, industry and academia, that now is not the time for complacency, and said he was reminded of the oft-repeated refrain of a colleague at Intel—“Only the paranoid survive.” It is a healthy approach to adopt, he believes, considering the high stakes involved for this nation—global leadership, economic prosperity, and educational and entrepreneurial opportunities that continue to attract the best talent from around the world.

Since its inception in 2012, the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series has “set a new standard of intellectual discourse, discussion and thoughtful analysis of important topics that are related to the future of society, and certainly our country,” said Stevens President Nariman Farvardin. President Farvardin described Dr. Barrett as a champion of education who provides an important voice in “raising awareness of the value of technology in improving global, social and economic standards.”

Past President’s Distinguished Lecture Series speakers include Dr. John Deutch, institute professor at MIT and former CIA director; Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Dr. Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin.

For more information about the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, please visit