Migrated from an old post elsewhere.

Common knowledge among the educationally-informed: Demand for engineers in the U.S. economy will continue to increase over coming years, but the number of students obtaining degrees in engineering is doing the opposite. Dropout rates for engineering majors approach 50%, partly because the public school system does little to prepare students in the way of math and science. We content ourselves with providing visas to engineers from other countries. It works for now, since we reap benefits from their innovation. Yet this setup encourages other nations to put even more effort into math and science education, and us to put in even less. Asian and European countries are building up large groups of skilled engineers and scientists, many of whom will find work back home. Thus, a technology innovation gap forms.

Consider the atomic bomb. It was a breakthrough technology, not necessarily a good one, but one that gave its holders immense military and political power. Nations not possessing it lost political leverage and ability to negotiate as effectively with those that did. Such a technology was the product of a massive scientific effort.

Such dramatic inventions are not frequent, and rarely come about by accident. However, moderately-important technologies appear every few months now. Some will spread among nations… but if some visionary sees the potential to benefit directly from the technology, it may be… classified.

Now, few governments are interested in chasing shadows. Many will fund general research in promising areas, but little more. Yet when a valuable technology is discovered within that very country, a prudent government will doubtless step in. And in order for the discovery to occur, it helps for there to be an extremely large number of trained scientists and engineers working there. Statistically, there is a rather small chance that any breakthrough technology will be discovered in Somalia or some such nation with a broken economy and no government capable of offering a substantial education system.

Other nations’ economies are growing rapidly, such that more and more are able to fund their own technological research (several Asian countries are working on independent space programs). Over time, they will be able to employ the excellent technical professionals their education systems are producing. Gradually, such countries will rise to the technological top, past those that are incapable of supplying their own scientists and engineers. And that is where the U.S. is weak in education.

Carbon nanotube visualization
Breakthrough technologies are not predictable. Who knows when the next major development will occur? The Internet could be considered a semi-major breakthrough (and it was made for the military), but it was a communication system, which the U.S. most benefited from by sharing with other nations. The next major technology may come from somewhere else, and it may be one that is best kept private. When the time comes, power will shift.

The high-strength carbon nanotube is an example of a moderate technology, which could prove highly useful in a more advanced form, but currently has developing benefits, and happens to be under research in many nations already.