Monday, October 18, 2010

Globalization of higher education in science and technology

I came across a good article by Ben Wildavsky in the New York Academy of Sciences Magazine on the internationalization of higher education. I quote a revealing statistic:
Perhaps some of the anxiety over the new global academic enterprise is understandable, particularly in a period of massive economic uncertainty. But setting up protectionist obstacles is a big mistake. The globalization of higher education should be embraced, not feared—including in the U.S. In the near term, it's worth remembering that, despite the alarmism often heard about the global academic wars, U.S. dominance of the research world remains near-complete. A RAND report found that almost two-thirds of highly cited articles in science and technology come from the U.S. Seventy percent of Nobel Prize winners are employed by U.S. universities, which lead global college rankings. And Yale president Richard Levin notes that the U.S. accounts for 40 percent of global spending on higher education.
Indeed, the economic benefits of a global academic culture are significant. In a recent essay, Harvard economist Richard Freeman says these gains should accrue both to the U.S. and the rest of the world. The globalization of higher education, he writes, "by accelerating the rate of technological advance associated with science and engineering and by speeding the adoption of best practices around the world ... will lower the costs of production and prices of goods."
It may be worthwhile to differentiate "science" from "technology" in considering the globalization of higher education in these fields.

Science is primarily focused on the development of knowledge about the physical and social world. That knowledge is not protected by intellectual property rights and new scientific knowledge becomes part of our world heritage. There doesn't seem to be any disadvantage to any nation of other nations contributing more and more to the amount of scientific knowledge and understanding in the global knowledge commons.

Technological knowledge is where the money is. Some of it can be protected by intellectual property rights for some time, and thus gives a competitive advantage to the firms that own those rights and the countries in which those companies place their production. If the global rate of technological innovation is increased by the globalization of S&T higher education and the dissemination of research intensive universities into more nations, then people everywhere should benefit from new products and more productive industries. Moreover, technological invention should not be a zero-sum game. If the United States continues to emphasize research and development, technological innovation and higher education in the sciences and technology then its rate of invention and commercialization of inventions should not be reduced.

Note however that higher education in technology produces engineers and others whose function is not so much invention as development, maintenance and operation of the infrastructure (including the productive plant as well as the civil works and energy infrastructure). These folks contribute to increased economic productivity where they work and again it is hard to see why an improvement of the infrastructure in other countries should be a disadvantage to the United States as long was we continue to develop and maintain our own.

The economic dominance of the United States was in part the result of Europe's wars that were so destructive to the economic systems of the European based empires that existed in the first decade of the 20th century. The standard of living in the United States should not be maintained by an effort to maintain an economic imperialism to exploit the people of other nations, but rather by an economy that innovates to increase productivity and a society that trades globally to take advantage of comparative advantages whereever they exist.

There are implications for the United States of the globalization of invention and S&T higher education. Technology transfer from abroad will become more important as a means of increasing productivity of U.S. industry (as it was in earlier centuries). The international pattern of comparative advantage will change more and more rapidly, so the United States will have to be more agile in changing domestic production and international trade to respond to changes in the international pattern of comparative advantage. It will also need a workforce prepared to live and compete in a more global economy that is growing and changing ever more rapidly.

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