America's tech decline: A reading guide

A growing body of literature says America's best days may not be ahead

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. imagines itself as the world's leader in technology, and for good reason. American tech dominates many world markets.

Yet just about every report that looks at where America is and where it is going sees this nation in decline or at risk of it.

It's a theme that has been picked up by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who won a Nobel Prize in physics. Both have warned recently that the nation is facing a "Sputnik moment," with a shrinking share of the world's technology export market.

This view also arises as the U.S. continues to lead the world in new tech directions, such as cloud computing. U.S. tech firms are building highly energy-efficient data centers at shopping-mall-size scales to serve global customers.

Even India's rise as a technology center would not be possible without the U.S. India's big offshore companies continue to earn more than 50% of their revenue from North America. If it wasn't for Apple, China wouldn't be manufacturing iPhones and iPads.

The impact of U.S. innovation continues to be enormous and surprising, creating such technologies as social networking. Facebook and Twitter proved to be important tools in reshaping the Middle East.

So, what's up with the World Economic Forum, which this week ranked Sweden as the No. 1 country in its annual "Global Information Technology Report"? Did the report's authors mistake Ikea for IBM?

The U.S. placed fifth for the second consecutive year in the forum's annual report -- behind Singapore, Finland and Switzerland.

The report maintains that "there is no area on the globe that has an inherent advantage" in the digital economy. The rankings are based on those countries it believes are making the best use of new technologies and high-speed networks, and it also measures the percentage of households with PCs, the percentage of mobile devices with data access, political environment, and so on.

The value of comparing the U.S. against four front-running countries with a combined population of 26.6 million (California has almost 37 million residents) is probably an open question.

It would not be difficult to poke a stick at the World Economic Forum's tech rankings. But there's a growing body of evidence that indicates that the U.S. is in decline or in danger of waning. These reports and cogent opinions analyze R&D spending, education, the business climate and many other things, and they are increasingly influencing the debate in Washington.

Here's a look at some of the assessments.

1. The paper "Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Rapidly Approaching Category 5," originally published in 2005 and updated last year, was prepared for the presidents of the National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.

In the five years since the original report, its authors have concluded that "the nation's outlook has worsened." The report cited problems in education, particularly in math and science, and federal spending. It's filled with observations, such as: "Of Wal-Mart's 6,000 suppliers, 5,000 are in China," and, "Only four of the top 10 companies receiving United States patents last year (2009) were United States companies."

2. Unlike many people in government positions, the DOE secretary doesn't speak from the safety of rigidly prepared text. But a richly illustrated presentation he prepared for a talk last fall at the National Press Club outlined his concerns about America's tech decline, particularly in manufacturing. He made numerous comparisons between the U.S. and China and included a quote from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2009: "We will make China a country of innovation."

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