White House’s Chief Technology Officer honored as US falls in global innovativeness ranking


Megan Smith

Megan Smith, the US Government’s Chief Technology Officer, is among the 2015 recipients of the annual Luminary Awards presented to Exceptional Women in Business. The awards are conferred by the Committee of 200 (“C200″), an organization of women entrepreneurs and business leaders..

Four women were honored at this year’s ceremony on October 23 at Washington DC’s Fairmont Hotel: Margery Kraus, Founder of the public relations firm APCO, Sandra E Peterson, Chair of pharmaceutical and consumer goods manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that supports computer education for women, and Ms Smith, who was recognized for her support of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. President Obama appointed Ms Smith to her federal post (helping the White House to progress technology innovation) in September 2014. Previously she was a Vice President at the Internet products company Google.

Ms Smith is the US’s third Chief Technology Officer, the position having been created by President Barack Obama in 2009 with Aneesh Chopra as the first incumbent, followed by Todd Park in 2015.

While the concept of a Chief Technology Officer of the US deserves sustained support, and while Ms Smith is to be heartily congratulated on her recognition, it’s time to re-examine the mission, powers and meaningful achievements of her office in a time of serious concern about the real health of US technology innovation leadership. The Bloomberg business information group’s 2015 Global Innovation Index (comparing fifty countries’ per capita patent volume and research spending, high-technology business population, manufacturing-sector contribution to gross value, tertiary education, and research-worker population) ranks the US sixth in global innovative productivity, after, in descending order, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Finland and Israel. In 2014 it ranked third, but this year Bloomberg included national education performance in its measurements, which pulled America down, since we place thirty-third in tertiary education.

Large US companies retain an ability to put impressive marketing resources into hyping even relatively small advances in gadgetry, maintaining a spectacular publicity machine that tends to obscure a disturbing momentum of complacency and slippage in America’s global innovative competitiveness. The historically established mass of the US’s economy helps perpetuate an illusion that all is well in US technological innovation. For historical reasons going back generations, our national economic scale is enormous, generating numbers that inspire confidence. But there is a great difference between size and evolutionary fitness. Think dinosaurs. For that matter, think China. Because of China’s immense population, it too generates numbers that convey an awesome sense of scale, yet when the figures are adjusted to compensate for scale, it falls way down to twenty-second position on Bloomberg’s innovation index. (Although in some respects it too is outpacing America; see below.)

Another annual global innovation index is published jointly by New York’s Cornell University, WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations entity) and the international business university INSEAD (the name is derived from Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires, meaning European Institute of Business Administration). Using a methodology that differs from Bloomberg’s, the Cornell-WIPO-INSEAD ranking places the US fifth after (in descending order) Switzerland, Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Other sources have sounded similar alarms. Historical momentum and accumulated economic mass continue for now to show the US as the world’s top nation in disease research, but its supremacy is eroding fast: a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has observed that the US’s place as a contributor to global biomedical research funding has declined from fifty-seven percent to forty-four percent over the past decade, with waning US support for such research being met by climbing support in other countries. China’s medical research funding has been rising at around seventeen percent annually as against America’s one percent, and Chinese science and technology workers now outnumber the US’s. The JAMA study warns that the US stands to lose its historical innovation lead within ten years if it doesn’t reverse the current trend.

Perhaps the loudest wake-up calls arise from the state of our military innovation and America’s sagging infrastructure. This summer the respected British publication The Economist asserted that the US was losing its technology-based military edge, investing in unimaginative older weapons systems to which career military leaders have become accustomed, while focusing its energies on activities in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of the development of next-generation technology. At the same time, China has been massively investing in new sea power, air power and sophisticated computer technologies capable of disrupting the operating systems of American missiles, planes and ships. As for our infrastructural problems, the US Government has acknowledged that some 60 000 bridges in the country are structurally deficient and that the Highway Trust Fund, a federal account supporting national road works, was expected to fall below “safe levels” on November 20, 2015. It has also been reported that operating costs are not being covered by passenger fares in any US metro rail system.

This is admittedly a wide range of problems, but one way and another they all revolve around our nation’s diminishing scientific and technological momentum. The US’s Chief Technology Officer should be showing us an aggressive plan to lead the US out of its innovation decline in all these areas, as a matter of very great urgency.

Read more: Bloomberg’s Global Innovation Index  | America’s biomedical decline  | Asia overtaking US in innovation  | The loss of our military’s technology edge | The infrastructure crisis  | Megan Smith’s award