Report: Bad schools threaten California’s nanotech dominance

Jan. 21, 2004 — California’s inability to produce a technically skilled work force compromises the state’s standing as a leader in nanotechnology, according to a state-sponsored report released Tuesday.

But the problem lies as much with state legislators as with its beleaguered public education system, particularly if lawmakers see school cuts as a quick-fix solution to the state’s budget crisis, proponents said.

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The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) unveiled its findings at a briefing for lawmakers Tuesday. The 139-page report calls for an advisory council for the governor’s office and a select committee for the Senate and Assembly to steer the long-term development of nanotechnology in the state. The group also recommends creation of numerous educational and training initiatives to grow an in-state labor pool capable of serving the needs of a nanotech industry.

“The biggest threat is education and work force,” said Susan Hackwood, executive director of the CCST and one of the report’s nine principal authors. “California does a fine job of importing people, but that masks the dark side of having a poor education system.”

California placed No. 1 in Small Times’ overall rankings of small tech hubs in 2003, but it took the No. 6 slot in the work force category. It is competing with dozens of states, as well as Japan and other nations, for the title of “nanotech capital of the world.” The economic benefits will include high-paying jobs in a growing field that also is expected to permeate many of California’s existing tech-based industries — biotech, microelectronics and defense, for instance.

The state maintains its reputation as a powerhouse for nanotech research and commercialization. Its University of California system, California Institute of Technology and Stanford University, plus federally funded facilities such as the NASA Ames Research Center and the Lawrence Livermore and Berkeley national labs and corporate investment from the likes of Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC, News, Web) and Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ, News, Web) earned it a top ranking for R&D spending and productivity in the National Science Foundation’s most recent analysis.

But an ineffective K-12 public education system remains its Achilles heel. More than 10 percent of California’s high school students fail to graduate. Many students are poorly prepared for a college education: Californians’ verbal and math SAT scores put them at an abysmal 43rd and 27th spots respectively nationwide, according to a 2002 state-by-state science and technology index by the Milken Institute.

“The existing work force is highly trained and competitive, but the work force is aging,” said Gus Koehler, a policy analyst and author of the report’s chapter on work-force issues. “That’s a very deep concern to me and many people in California. As they age, they have problems keeping their skills up, or they disappear. Who is coming up through education and being trained?”

Koehler projects that California will experience a shortage of qualified workers in the next decade while states like Massachusetts and New Mexico will pull ahead. Massachusetts has the highest concentration of Ph.D.s in the nation, according to Small Times’ 2003 analysis, and New Mexico invests in technology training.

The CCST advises the state to start a K-12 science and engineering initiative, add nanotechnology to its science education standards, develop a technician training program and involve industry in other worker training initiatives. It also encourages lawmakers to explore funding opportunities for their constituents through the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which could pour $3.7 billion into nanotech efforts over the next four years. U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., was a co-sponsor of the bill.

“We haven’t asked for money,” Hackwood said. Instead the council calls for coordinated efforts to tap federal funds, reassess the state tax burden and other practices that hamper business, and revamp education. “This will require a substantial change in the education system from the top down.”

The state’s $14 billion budget shortfall has been taking its toll on education, which is likely to absorb another hit in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed 2004-2005 budget. Some K-12 outreach programs that were designed to prepare students for college face elimination, while the University of California and California State University systems could lose more than $600 million.

“I think the word is devastating,” state Sen. John Vasconcellos said of the budget crisis. Vasconcellos, a veteran Democrat whose district includes Silicon Valley, co-chairs the Joint Committee on Preparing California for the 21st Century. The committee asked for the nanotechnology report as part of its mission to identify the most profound developments facing the state.

“We’re not going to be competitive (in nanotechnology) if we close our doors while others are growing tenfold,” Vasconcellos said. “We have to find ways of keeping the university doors open to California students.”

But getting legislators to support policy whose payoff is a decade or more in the future is difficult even in a good economy, Hackwood and Koehler said. Most lawmakers want results within their term limits, while the technical challenges of nanotechnology require a long-term commitment.

“There is a severe disconnect between the timeframe of policy and how technology is emerging,” Koehler said.

“It’s a challenge we recognize daily in science and technology policy,” Hackwood agreed.

The authors see the creation of a select committee for legislators and an advisory council for the governor as critical for maintaining the state’s lead in nanotechnology. Such institutions would shield a nanotech initiative from the vicissitudes of term politics and focus on long-term goals.

Vasconcellos, who will retire on Nov. 30, said his fellow lawmakers could buy in once they see the political and personal advantages of supporting an emerging technology. From his perspective, it means paving the way for a higher standard of living and job opportunities for millions of Californian children. “We can blend the moral and the self-interest,” he said.

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