U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to "win the future" by out-innovating the rest of the world was a ringing climax of his State of the Union address this week. Obama suggested increasing U.S. investment in research and development, a good and welcome step. But what will really determine U.S. competitiveness in the global ideas market isn't the money we can pour into the system. It's the strength of the system itself -- the social, political, and cultural institutions that shape ideas from start to finish.
There is no doubt that China and India are catching up with the United States when it comes to hardware -- the raw materials for innovation. They are increasing their spending on science and technology, training more engineers and scientists, applying for more patents, and churning out more research papers.
But the actual system for generating useful ideas in these places remains underdeveloped. Yes, more scientists are being trained, but that doesn't mean they're producing good science. Plagiarism and data fraud are rampant. In a survey of 180 graduates with doctorates quoted in China Daily, 60 percent admitted to paying for their work to be published in academic journals. Sixty percent also said that they had copied someone else's work. Even as a large number of Chinese and Indian scientific stars have returned to their native countries from abroad, they have been unable to transform a research culture characterized by strong bureaucratic control and deference toward age and seniority. In the words of Anita Mehta, a physicist at the S. N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences in India, "Diversity of research or personality is often frowned upon, those who don't match stereotypes or work on subjects that have been hammered to death are labelled 'too independent.'"