Dean Barber

Will the Future Thomas Edison Please Stand Up

In Uncategorized on June 5, 2011 at 9:27 am

As I write this latest blog, I feel whipped and yet relieved. While my principle business is site selection consulting, I remain an old newspaper reporter at heart, having spent 20 years in that gut-wrenching but satisfying business.

I have no regrets about having been an investigative reporter and later business editor; it’s just that I have moved on. What that means is twofold: I like to dig for information, and I seldom take anything at face value. Both aspects bode well for site selection consulting, which I would submit is a form of investigative reporting.

So the newspaperman in me has left me skeptical. People say stuff all the time, and when there is money involved, watch out.

Now I told you that I feel whipped and relieved. That’s because I have just completed a story for Site Selection magazine, in which I learned the story behind the story about a so-called miracle material being touted in the nanotechnology world. What I learned was that there is this material that offers a significant potential for commercial application. But I also found a whole lot of hype.

Hype, Hoopla and Hucksterism

Now one could reasonably argue that hype has been a byproduct of nanotechnology and biotechnology, but the truth remains that both fields have generated new companies, new jobs and new tangible products. And all of that is very good.

I am not going to preempt the magazine story. But I will tell you this: Business is not the only business guilty of hype, hoopla and hucksterism. Academia does it, too, especially professors who are seeking grant money to fund their research projects. Believe it or not, sometimes these PhDs attached to major universities will make promises that would rival any outlandish claims posed in the business world. When they do so, they literally become spin doctors. Indeed, some have all the attributes of being fine economic developers.

But research is a good thing, the key to our nation’s future prosperity. I am absolutely convinced of that. Most cutting edge research takes place at the university level. Typically, major corporations sink money into research only after university research shows them a path to making a viable commercial product.

In the course of doing my work on the story, I stumbled on something else that caught my eye. Somewhat to my surprise, nearly everyone I talked to on the subject manner was not born in this country. I spoke to PhDs who were Chinese, Russian, and Indian and from a smattering of other countries. Now please understand that I am not questioning their loyalty or whether they pose a security risk to our nation. I am not going there.

I believe these brainy foreign-born scientists are here because they want to be here. They are doing vital work, and I only wish we had more of them here doing basic research. More often than not, they make great U.S. citizens.

Where Are Our Kids?

What concerns me is why I wasn’t interviewing natural born American scientists when working on the story. Why was that? When I go to the web page of a physics department for a major university and look at a photo of the professor and his students, and the overwhelming majority appeared to be of Chinese origin, I have to wonder why.

Again, this is not Chinese bashing. If anything, this is American bashing to this extent:  I am simply asking where are the American kids?

One nanotechnology industry exec that I mentioned this to pooh-poohed my concerns. It is true that our best and brightest have not been delving into science deeply, but pursuing careers in business, like finance, IT and software, places where they thought they could make money. They’ll be back, the exec predicted. The kids will come back and be our future professors of science. Just you wait, he said.

Well, I hope he is right, but I’m no so sure. There might be an underlying reason why American kids rank so low in math and science when compared to the rest of the world. Perhaps they think the subject matter is too tough or too boring or just doesn’t offer a backdrop of creativity.

A 2006 University  of Florida study suggests that Chinese children want to learn practical knowledge in an organized environment, while their American counterparts prefer a more imaginative school environment. That lends support to some stories that I have heard from U.S. businessmen who have done extensive business in China. They have told me that the Chinese tend to lack creativity and imagination that is sometimes absolutely needed – that they do things strictly by the book and by the numbers.

A Nation of Curious Tinkerers

The individualist culture of the United States and the comparatively collectivist culture of China probably influence learning styles, said Thomas Oakland, a professor of educational psychology at UF’s College of Education. Chinese classrooms tend to be more structured and authoritarian than classrooms in the West, while American schools try to encourage critical thinking skills and student interaction with teachers.

But despite the fact that it would appear that we are falling behind on the science front, I would suggest that our individualist American culture has a peculiar knack for coming up with new things. We are historically a nation of curious tinkerers and we best continue that tradition.

And while we may have to resort to some snake-oil salesmanship on occasion to fund our projects and ideas, we remain a Mecca for free-wheeling science. There is a reason why these Chinese, Indian, and Russian scientists want to come and work and live in the United States, and it’s not just money. I would suggest it is our creative, free-wheeling environment which spawns innovation. Frankly, it is our only hope to compete.

Say It Aint So

I do not want to come off like Chicken Little by declaring the sky is falling, but I am starting to wonder if we might be heading into a double-dip recession. Gosh, I even hate to mention that. I don’t think it will happen, but certainly growth is slowing.

U.S. employment rose by 54,000 in May, far less than expected, to record its weakest reading since September, while the jobless rate rose to 9.1 percent. And while this blog is not devoted to politics, it looks more and more to me that President Obama is vulnerable in 2012. My take is that the unemployment rate has to be below 8 percent for the Democrats to retain the White House.

The horror story with housing continues. Home prices are still falling and have reached their lowest level since 2002 in March. Nearly one out of four American homeowners is underwater on their mortgages.

Higher gas prices have left less money for consumers to spend on other purchases. And average wages aren’t even keeping up with inflation. As a result, consumer spending, which fuels about 70 percent of the economy, is sluggish.

More people entered the work force in May. But most of the new entrants couldn’t find work. That pushed the unemployment rate up from 9.0 percent in April. The number of unemployed rose to 13.9 million.

Manufacturers cut 5,000 jobs in May, the first job loss in that sector in seven months. That included a drop of 3,400 jobs in the auto sector. Car makers are cutting back on production because they are having a difficult time purchasing parts. Many auto parts are manufactured in Japan and the March 11 earthquake in that country has disrupted supply chains.

These dismal numbers all point to a slowing economy, although some analysts believe the data indicates the recovery has hit a soft patch.

Let us hope it is just a soft patch.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business  Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Red Oak, Texas —

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