STEM education is a key development agenda. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the UK-led Europe became highly prosperous due to wealth creation success out of the advancement of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The USA followed it up during the 20th century. Japan and South Korea, and lately Taiwan, followed it up.
Such achievement has created a common belief that STEM education empowers individuals and nations to create wealth for driving prosperity. As if there exists a natural correlation between STEM indicators and the economic prosperity of a nation. Some of the indicators are STEM graduates, R&D spending, publications, and patents. For sure, it’s true for some nations. For example, the UK leveraged it to drive prosperity, forming the first industrial revolution. Similarly, the USA become a developed country by leveraging it creating the 2nd and the third industrial revolutions. But what about India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and many other less developed countries? Have they succeeded to create proportionate value from the investment they have been making in STEM education?
Of course, India’s success in sending STEM graduates to the USA and leveraging them through an export-oriented IT industry is remarkable. But why are more than 85% of India’s engineering graduates failing to get jobs to apply their STEM competence? On the other hand, contrary to USA’s 568,000, China and India produced 4.7m and 2.6m graduates in 2016. Does it mean that China and India have been producing far more wealth from STEM than what the USA has been deriving? If the answer is no, what else is needed to transfer STEM education investment into economic value? Besides, despite significant advancements in STEM R&D and education and also scientific discoveries and technological inventions, why is Russia’s success in leveraging STEM in creating wealth minimal?
The success of the British in driving prosperity out of STEM—creating the first industrial revolution
In the preindustrial edge, inventions and innovations were not scalable. People used to rely on intuition to gather knowledge about nature in producing ideas to get their jobs done better. They used to rely on craftsmen to implement those ideas. Production of usable products out of those ideas used to be limited to the craftsmanship capability of artisans. Hence, both innovations and their replications were not scalable—limiting the growth of economic prosperity.
Although during the golden era of the role of Muslims in science and mathematics significant advancement took place, their applications in scaling up ideas could not take place. But unlike in the past, things got changed during the 18th century. First of all, the development of mathematics and knowledge of physics led to Newtonian mechanics—giving birth to Mechanical engineering. As a result, craftsmanship got scaled up leading to optimum design for precession implementation of ideas. Hence, the British economy started getting benefit from the development of STEM.
On the other hand, the development of scientific knowledge about thermodynamics led to the creation of a flow of ideas for improving the performance of steam engines. The development on these two fronts opened the opportunity for the British to advance STEM and produce STEM graduates for driving economic growth. Subsequently, the rest of Europe scaled up STEM education and its exploitation for prosperity.
Therefore, it could be reasoned that the development of STEM and expansion of STEM education in Europe formed the underpinning of economic prosperity. But does it mean that if any country like Bangladesh started pouring investment into expanding STEM education, similar economic prosperity will also happen? Ironically, by the end of the 19th century, the British economic reached saturation in deriving prosperity from the steam engine and mechanization out of mechanical engineering.
America’s success in leveraging STEM education and research in driving wealth creation
During the first half of the 19th-century, science advanced in studying the electrical properties of materials, forming electrical science. Mostly, European scientists contributed to this advancement. Based on this science, in the 1860s and 1870s, electrical engineering was formed. By leveraging this recent advancement in STEM, inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs of the USA and Europe started building new industrial economies out of electrical properties. Hence, America and Europe found another path of wealth creation out of STEM. For further prosperity, they also started advancing and exploiting internal combustion engines with STEM competence.
During the first half of the 20th century, quantum science started to progress, leading to quantum mechanics. The invention of the Transistor in 1947 opened the window of leveraging this branch of STEM for creating economic value. Hence, the race started among the firms of America, Europe, and Japan, lately South Korea and Taiwan, to drive prosperity by increasing the silicon density.
In retrospect, the prosperity of Europe, America, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan hinges on STEM education and research. But that has been happening due to the strong coupling of STEM with the mission of taking inventions and innovations into the market.
The partial success of India in leveraging STEM education
After independence in 1947, India embarked on expanding STEM education and research and pursuing the strategy of import substitution. Hence, India adopted a strong tariff barrier and condoned intellectual properties to start replicating once imported industrial products. This strategy led to the apparent rapid industrial capability of India. But there was too weak or no linkage of STEM for advancing products that India started producing. Hence, there was no role of the accumulation of STEM competence in driving India’s prosperity, till 1980.
In the 1980s, India tapped into the market of remotely delivering IT services. Furthermore, India also started sending STEM graduates to study and work in the USA and other parts of the advanced world. As a result, India started leveraging STEM education. But India’s success in driving innovations in the domestic industry by leveraging STEM is still very limited. This is one of the reasons that more than 85% of India’s engineering graduates are failing to find engineering jobs. Furthermore, despite rapid growth of publications and STEM graduates, India’s economy has been on the slow lane. Hence, so far India’s success in STEM education and research has been by exporting services and STEM graduates. Improving the competitiveness of the local economy through technological innovations is mostly absent.
China’s mission of leveraging STEM
Despite having a history of inventions and innovations, like the Europeans and Americans, China could not scale them up by leveraging STEM. However, upon succeeding in labor trade in the global manufacturing value chain, China has embarked on leveraging STEM for driving prosperity. Hence, China has rapidly expanded STEM research and education. Along with the R&D budget reaching over $440 billion in 2021, China is also the largest producer of STEM graduates. China’s next challenge has been in turning STEM competence into economic value. Hence, China has been desperate to improve existing products through incremental innovation. China is also after reinventing matured products for creating the next wave of growth. Interestingly, China has been showing success on this front.
For example, CATL’s success in improving batteries through the local flow of ideas, making them better and cheaper, is notable. CATL batteries have been fueling the reinvention of automobiles. Similarly, Huawei’s success in reinventing mobile communications as 5G gears is quite remarkable. Despite such successes, it’s quite premature to comment that China has succeeded to drive economic prosperity out of STEM education and research.
Relevance of STEM education in technology user countries
Most of the countries of the world have been benefiting from technologies through imports. They have been using the proceeds of labor and natural resource trade to pay the import bills. In these countries, the strategy of economic value creation is either through the export of raw natural resources and/or labor or by adding value to industrial products by importing technologies. Hence, there has been little or no scope for leveraging STEM for creating economic value. The only way they can derive a bit of value is through the export of their bright STEM graduates to advanced countries. Unless they change their strategy and policy of economic value creation, these countries have little scope for driving prosperity out of STEM education and research. Hence, they run the risk of wasting the resources allocated for expanding STEM education.
As explained, despite the tremendous success of British-led Europe, America, Japan, and lately South Korea and Taiwan, in leveraging STEM, there has been no natural correlation between STEM and prosperity. In addition to STEM competence, we need to create economic capacity. Appropriate strategy and policy should be in place for turning STEM into prosperity. Ironically, many less developed countries are investing their hard-earned saving in STEM, without creating such a capacity. As a result, these countries will likely suffer from wasteful investment in STEM education.
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