“The giant sucking sound” (1150)

By far and away the three most important countries of the world are America, Germany and England. These three countries predominate in scientific research, particularly in ‘pure’ or leading-edge research. In terms of Nobel Prizes won for discoveries in Physics, Chemistry and Physiology between 1901 and 2010, the numbers are 246, 92 and 85 respectively. For comparison purposes with other high-tech countries, France has won 30, Russia 24 and Japan 15. China — to which I will return in a little while — has won 10.

The importance of pure research is that it inevitably leads on to developmental research when discoveries (and sometimes the original discoverers) move out of academic labs and research institutes and into business corporations. There, new applications are dressed up in patents and ultimately appear physically as new consumer goods or new (or improved) production methods. However, because the original discoveries first appeared as papers in scientific journals and able to be read by developmental scientists anywhere in the world, the subsequent distribution of patents between countries is far wider than that of Nobel Prizes.

Here, the picture is very different. Regarding existing patent applications (up to 2008), the US, with 400,000, has already been overtaken by Japan with 500,000, while China is fast catching up with 200,000 already (this year it is already applying for more patents than America). For comparison, the figures for Germany, France, England and Russia are 135,000, 48,000, 42,000 and 29,000 respectively.

Does it matter, therefore, that pure scientific research (as measured by Nobel Prizes) is so unequally distributed? Yes, it does, for two reasons. The first is that the vast majority of patent applications are merely tweakings or minor improvements of existing patents. Almost any country or corporation with sufficient investment and a modicum of work-a-day scientists can catch up with existing consumer products or industrial methods and then can add tweaks of their own for which they can make patent applications. Thus, those countries which, as a matter of government policy, educate a disproportionate number of graduate scientists, are able to catch up in whatever goods or methods that are initially developed in America, Germany or England. Thus Japan, and more recently China, have been able to get to the leading edge in all existing industrial sectors without — at least so far — developing any brand new sectors of their own.

The second reason is the obverse of the first in that the most important patent applications follow directly from major discoveries. Thus those countries which have the lead in pure research have first mover advantage in translating major discoveries into brand new products or methods — that is, if they want to do so. In England, for example, where industrial vocations are still considered to be inferior to retailing, law, banking, football, literature or pompous ceremonials (which almost daily become more convoluted and ridiculous) then new, economically-productive ideas increasingly tend to go abroad for development, mainly to America so far but also, more recently, to Asia.

Which now leads directly to the title of this piece. It was first uttered by Ross Perot in 1992 when he was an American presidential candidate. He used it to describe how Mexico, China and other countries were “sucking” jobs out of America. Indeed, this was true (for low-skill jobs mainly) but he avoided mentioning that American corporations were only too eager to expectorate American jobs outwardly in order to save on labour costs and enhance their profits. Like everything to do with economics it is a two-way process.

Nor, I suppose, Ross Perot was aware that a much more important giant sucking syndrome — albeit less dramatic — had been going on for almost a century. This time to America’s benefit. I refer to the recruitment of the cream of European scientists by American universities and research foundations. Einstein, fleeing persecution of Jewish scientists in the 1930s, was the first of quite a number of brilliant German physicists in that decade to settle in America. Immediately after the war a further crop of German rocket scientists migrated. This was followed by a long steady succession of other key European scientists, mainly English, all through the 1950s right up to the present day. Also, the cream of Chinese science students and young research scientists tend to stay in America after their initial research spell. In the fields of particle physics and evolutionary biology — two of the most complex disciplines — half of the papers in the top research journals are authored by Chinese researchers who elect to remain in America.

So far, no “giant sucking sound” has emanated from China. True, China certainly recruits from America and Europe but mainly, so far, those with managerial experience in manufacturing and banking in which China is still in short supply. The most eminent of these has been John Thornton, who was a past partner in Goldman Sachs. He was appointed the Dean of the business faculty at Tsinghua University in Beijing (the number two in China) and was a close confidant of several top Chinese politicians. However, although China has had a green card system for about five years now there has been no great push in offering positions to the cream of American research scientists. Chinese born Bruce Lahn, who is arguably the leading geneticist in the world and runs research teams in both America (Chicago University) and China (Beijing University), prefers to live in America. However, now that China is up to scratch in every technological sector, it may now wish to forge ahead in one or the other and for this it will need the most creative minds in science.

Perhaps, so far, the Chinese government has not wanted to be too provocative towards America. After all, there are already too many differences and difficulties (e.g. currency issues, Chinese investment in America) for not wishing to fan the flames further. Economically, both countries need each other — so far, anyway. But what would happen if the American economy wound down much more deeply into recession? Since the credit-crunch of 2007/8 it has half-collapsed already. The great endowment funds of some of America’s major research universities, such as Yale and Harvard, and also those of the big research foundations, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have already taken a 20-30% knock in their equity assets. If the expected double dip occurs — and then remains there for years while debts are paid off, as many expect — then funding for pure research is bound to suffer. The cream of American scientists might well leap at the opportunity of better facilities, opportunities and salaries in China.

The possibility of this new giant sucking sound is never — ever — mentioned in America to my knowledge. Yet, potentially, it might yet turn out to be the most serious aspect of the worsening situation in America. And, if Germany can’t extricate itself from the iron bands of the Eurozone, or if England doesn’t succeed with its present austerity programme, then China might start waving green cards in our direction also. After all, both countries are still producing innovative minds in science.

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