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An innovation nation once more

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Countries from Ireland to India to China have spent decades doing their homework – investing wholeheartedly in technically educated workforces – while America, still dreaming, seems to have forgotten it signed up for the course.

National somnambulism makes this a national leadership issue. Unfortunately, our presidential candidates seem only vaguely aware of the problem and unaware of the most effective role they could play in solving it. J. Richard Hackman, a leading scholar on organizational behavior, has emphasized that the best leadership consists of creating the conditions for greatness, in part by (a) pointing people in a compelling direction and (b) providing the resources they will need to move in that direction.

By those criteria, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama are demonstrating serious leadership on this issue. They make vague statements and say little about specific problems, specific causes, and specific solutions. They address some problems of the moment (federal research spending, the politicization of federal science agencies), but seem unaware that the sources of the US scientific workforce are starting to dry up. Quickly.

What should presidential leadership on these issues look like?

Both candidates should be articulating a clear direction – excellence in math, science, and engineering education at all levels – and specifying the resources they will dedicate to that goal. They do not need to design specific programs; they do need to show strong support for others who come up with such programs. Unfortunately, with vast military spending, entitlements, infrastructure investments, and corporate bailouts looming, neither Senator Obama nor Senator McCain is sticking up for serious money to repair our intangible but critical infrastructure of math, science, and engineering education.

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