Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, January 24, 2014

Questions, anyone? Agreement? Disagreement?

It's another op-ed to provoke thinking.

Stephen L. Sass, the author, is professor emeritus of materials science and engineering at Cornell University. He's not a political scientist, anthropologist, or sociologist, but he has experience in China and in science and engineering. Do you find his argument persuasive? (You really ought to go to The New York Times and read the whole piece.)

Can China Innovate Without Dissent?
Will China achieve technological dominance over the United States, surpassing us in scientific and engineering innovation?

A lot of people seem to think so…

China’s Yutu Moon Rover
Concern that China — home of landmark innovations like printing and gunpowder — might reclaim its legacy as a land of invention is voiced at even the highest levels of the American government…

Americans shouldn’t be so worried. Yes, China has demonstrated skill in moving to higher-value manufacturing, and excelled at improving existing technologies, while producing them more cheaply. But it has not excelled in true innovation…

[A]s a scientist who has taught in China, I don’t believe that China will lead in innovation anytime soon — or at least not until it moves its institutional culture away from suppression of dissent and toward freedom of expression and encouragement of critical thought.

Almost all the paradigm-shifting innovations over the past few hundred years… have emerged in countries with relatively high levels of political and intellectual liberty. Why is this?

A first reason is cultural: Free societies encourage people to be skeptical and ask critical questions…

A second reason is institutional: Much of American innovation started with the bright ideas of a few individuals, working in an industrial, government or university laboratory, or perhaps a garage in Silicon Valley. While government support for R&D is essential, innovation is typically the product of a bottom-up approach…

A third reason is political. Free societies attract foreign talent…

The significance of China’s vast spending on R&D cannot be overstated, particularly at a time when the United States has made short-sighted cuts to the budgets of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other agencies that finance research.

Perhaps I’m wrong that political freedom is critical for scientific innovation. As a scientist, I have to be skeptical of my own conclusions. But sometime in this still-new century, we will see the results of this unfolding experiment. At the moment, I’d still bet on America.

Teaching Comparative blog entries are indexed.

The Second Edition of What You Need to Know: Teaching Tools is now available from the publisher

The Fifth Edition of What You Need to Know is also available from the publisher.

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