Washington: All Geared Up To Fight the Last War

6/24/08

By now you’ve seen the 2008 Milken Institute “State Technology and Science Index.” Washington ranks fifth, behind Massachusetts, Maryland, Colorado, and California. Not too shabby? Let’s take a look under the covers.

At the outset, it’s important to acknowledge that all such rankings have a huge bogosity quotient—they’re highly sensitive to the precise criteria that are evaluated, and they’re subject to gaming. Still, there are probably some things to be learned.

The Milken index has five components:

Risk Capital and Entrepreneurial Infrastructure, where Washington ranks 4th.

Technology and Science Work Force, where Washington ranks 4th.

Research and Development Inputs, where Washington ranks 8th.

Technology Concentration and Dynamism, where Washington ranks 8th.

Human Capital Investment, where Washington ranks 16th.

Each of these, in turn, has between 10 and 21 sub-components, listed at the bottom of the Web pages. There’s a huge wealth of detail available—I urge you to take a detailed look.

For now, though, let’s not spend any time on the first and second components, where Washington ranks 4th among the states (in both cases, up several notches from the most recent previous ranking, carried out in 2004). Or even on the third and fourth, where we rank 8th.

Instead, let’s focus at the other end—”Human Capital Investment”—where we rank 16th, by far our worst performance.

Don’t take solace in the fact that we’re in the top third of the states. Yes, we beat out North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Idaho, West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Arkansas. But that’s not the competition. Every state that you’d think of as a tech competitor—and many that you wouldn’t—dominated us.

Here is our ranking on a few of the sub-components:

—Average Math SAT Scores: 25th among the states
—Average Verbal SAT Scores: 25th among the states
—Recent degrees awarded in science and engineering per 1,000 civilian workers: 35th among the states

Here’s the message, in a nutshell: Our state is doing an outstanding job at competing nationally and globally in the 21st century economy. But we’re doing it by importing talent from elsewhere. This includes me, and it probably includes you.

Our K-12 system is failing our kids—it’s not preparing them for, or teaching them to aspire to, 21st century careers. And our higher education system also is failing our kids—there is insufficient investment in bachelors-level education, and even within that, insufficient investment in science and engineering.

In other words, we’re failing our kids. We’re creating 21st century jobs, and they’re going to other people’s kids.

Ask your state legislator what he or she is planning to do about this. If you don’t, who will?

Ed Lazowska holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. His research and teaching concern the design, implementation, and analysis of high performance computing and communication systems. Follow @

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