US National Academy of Engineering chief Charles M. Vest told a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently that a “National Nightmare” could be unfolding because we continue to fail our children in education and remain blind to the implications of accelerating change on the global stage.

Actions taken in the past five years to avert just such a nightmare included the (soon to expire) COMPETE Act of 2007, approved by a broad bi-partisan majority and signed by President Bush. But the Act did not deliver stable funding to support its rhetoric, and the scientific community’s highest priority recommendations—to improve K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education and prepare for a 21st century teacher corps “have not yet been substantively addressed,” he said.

A new NAS report published on September 23 concluded that “in spite of the efforts of both those in government and the private sector, the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years.” They reached that somber conclusion in part through “a little dose of reality about where we actually rank today”:

  • # 6 in global innovation-based competitiveness, but #40 in rate of change over the last decade
  • #11 among OECD countries in the fraction of 25-34 year olds who have graduated from high school
  • #16 in college completion rate
  • #22 in broadband Internet access
  • #24 in life expectancy at birth
  • #27 among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering
  • #48 in quality of K-12 math and science education
  • #72 in density of mobile telephony subscriptions

“It is the 11th hour,” said Vest, “but this Nightmare need not materialize.” As indeed it did not in the 1980s, when “many serious people were quite certain that Japanwould dominate the world economy in a manner such that America would be crushed.” That did not happen, in part because the US consumer-manufacturing sector transformed itself—slowly and painfully, but surely—in response. “This transformation was hard, and it is still ongoing, but in the end because of our own actions the Apocalypse never came.”

The good news, then, is that the new Apocalypse need not be inevitable if we again recognize the urgent need for transformation. The bad news is that transformation is much harder today, because of our “devastating indifference toward the miserably inadequate way a very large fraction of our children are educated, blindness toward how dramatically the world as a whole and our place in it have changed, and refusal to face up to the results of our addiction to fossil fuel.”

Vest recognizes that this is “a very bleak analysis” and he believes that “we need to be deeply worried.” To fix it, we need “a public awakening, establishment of political will, resetting of priorities, sacrifice for the future, and an alliance of governments, businesses, and citizens. It requires truth telling, sensible investment, a rebirth of civility, and a cessation by both political and corporate leaders of pandering to our baser instincts.”

“It is time to regain our optimism and our ‘can do’ spirit in order to remain a great nation and meet the challenges of our times. The way to accomplish this is to reconnect what we do with what we dream…. It is time to change the national conversation and the national agenda, because dreams need doing.”

We don’t know whether Vest’s proposed fixes are realistic. The country seems to be growing less tolerant of sacrifice, less inclined to truth and civility. Nor do we know if a grand awakening is the only option. But surely, one look at the low rankings should enable most of us to agree that they do not bode well, and because the future of healthcare is ultimately dependent on the broader competitive context that Vest and the National Academy of Sciences are concerned about, the least we can do is help spread the alert through this special edition of the Digest.

Unless a critical mass of people is alerted to the situation and motivated to respond in some way or other—whether through a guided mass awakening or a spontaneous, fortuitous confluence of millions of individual epiphanies—the US seems likely continue its downward competitive spiral. At some point, this is bound to impact the country’s predominance in genomic, regenerative, digital and other new forms of medicine. Indeed, in the Digest we have not infrequently pointed to global developments already chipping away at what once seemed to be the United States’ unassailable lead in postmodern medicine.

David Ellis


Health Futures Digest

To read Vest’s speech, click:  HERE

To download a free PDF copy of the September 23 NAS report, click the “DOWNLOAD FREE PDF” button at this website.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *