We should cheer the development of Asian innovation, not cry about it. In the long view, the benefits to scientific progress, economic growth and political stability far outweigh the short-term threat to Western high-tech supremacy.
The threat is real, to be sure. From 1993 to 2006, the U.S. saw a respectable 24% increase in the number of science and engineering Ph.D.’s graduated each year. But South Korea experienced a 189% jump over that period, and China gained by more than 1,000%. China almost certainly now produces more highly educated scientists and engineers than the U.S. does.
Numbers aren’t the whole story, of course. To create truly valuable innovations, it’s not enough to know a lot: You also must be able to apply book smarts creatively to solve real problems. Universities in the U.S. and Europe are still the best at turning bright students into productive inventors.
As an economic strategy, copying makes sense when your main competitive advantage is cheap labor. But the exponential growth of cellular phone networks holds an even more important lesson for Asian economies: If you’re smart, you can skip a few rungs on your way up the value-creation ladder. Many countries around the world never built full land-line phone systems; they jumped straight to cellular.
All over Asia, political and business leaders are thinking about similar shortcuts to a technological economy. There are two basic ingredients: battalions of well-educated and strongly motivated inventors, and a patent system that ensures companies can earn a return on their investments.