American firms don't need to panic because research and development is going offshore just yet - but they can't ignore the situation either.
``We're now confronted with the globalization of science and engineering,'' said National Science Foundation director Arden Bement Jr. ``Computers and communication technology make some of the work easier, but it also makes things more competitive.''
Bement spoke Aug. 11 at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the polymer doctorate program at the University of Akron in Ohio. The program - the university's first in doctorates - launched in 1956 with five students. Since then, it's awarded more than 1,000 such degrees and has won international recognition.
Bement acknowledged the program's accomplishments, and pointed out the challenges that lie ahead for polymers and similar fields of study.
``The movement of manufacturing offshore has been [in the U.S.] for decades,'' said Bement, whose 50-year career in science includes commercial work with General Electric Co. and TRW Inc., along with teaching stints at MIT and Purdue University. ``America has been able to cope by retaining an edge in R&D and the high-paid jobs that go with it.''
But recent studies from the United Nations and the Booz Allen consulting firm show that many R&D investments now are being made in China, India and other areas outside of the U.S.
Bement countered those findings by pointing out that foreign firms continue to make R&D investment in the U.S. because of access to the lucrative, technology-friendly U.S. market. He called the trend ``onshoring'' and said R&D work heading overseas is ``less technically advanced.''
Another area that needs to be improved, in Bement's view, is the willingness of technology firms to collaborate with competitors.
The U.S. government is doing its part to preserve and grow American R&D by doubling the NSF's budget during the next 10 years. NSF also will work with educators to improve the math and science education of American students - education that Bement said is needed to compete in a high-tech global environment.
``We need to be as innovative in finding new paths as we are about producing iPods,'' he said. ``Nothing less than the future of America is at stake.''