The American Interview
Intel chairman Craig Barrett says America’s global economic dominance is threatened from within.
The American sat down with Craig Barrett to talk about America’s place in the global economy. Barrett, 66, received his Ph.D. in materials science from Stanford University, then joined Intel in 1974. He served as CEO for eight years and became chairman in 2005. He is the author of more than 40 papers on the influence of microstructure on the properties of materials, as well as a textbook on the subject. He recently became the first chairman of the United Nations’ Global Alliance for Information and Communications Technology and Development.
The American: You have helped raise the alarm about how few American students are going into science and engineering. Why does this issue concern you so much?
Craig Barrett: When I was a professor at Stanford, I saw a sudden
influx of foreign nationals into our graduate programs in mathematics,
the sciences, and engineering. We don’t value these fields enough.
Meanwhile, liberalization in China, in India, and elsewhere has created
three billion new capitalists, many of them with strong educational
backgrounds. They compete for jobs that the U.S. has until now
basically had a lock on. They cause dislocations. In the long run,
standards of living will be proportional to educational achievement,
and the U.S. may miss out.
"Another Sputnik would be nice."
What are you doing about it?
We try to show kids that they can earn recognition for using their brains, just as they can for football or basketball. Intel now sponsors the Science Talent Search that used to be backed by Westinghouse. We also support the International Science and Engineering Fair, which has entrants from 40 countries. The other thing we have done is to sponsor teacher training programs around the world, teaching them how to integrate technology into the classroom in ways that actually help students learn. We have trained 3.5 million teachers around the world in the last five years.
But relatively few of those teachers—about 250,000—were trained in the United States. Why?
First of all, there is no national curriculum in the U.S. There are 15,000 individual school districts, and you have to deal with each one separately. That makes our job harder. Secondly, there is just not the same appreciation of the importance of technology as an educational tool in the United States as in other countries. If you go to Korea, for example, or if you go to many of the Latin American countries, or to Eastern Europe, you find more people who understand that technology is essential for training top-notch scientists and engineers.
Why do you promote the use of computers in education? Is it really altruism, or are you trying to sell more chips?
It is a mixture. We put $100 million a year into education, and it does make sense to invest some of that in giving people the technology that can help them grow. As the world develops, it uses more of the technology, and that has to be good for business. So there is this yin and yang combination of motives involved.
You’ve talked about what Intel is doing. What do you think the government needs to do?
I worked on a report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, with the National Academies. We came up with some recommendations, and the President endorsed similar steps in his State of the Union address. We need to recruit more science and math teachers, provide better training to current teachers, and then expect more of students. We need to invest more in basic research. We should increase scholarship support to science students, and make it easier for talent from around the world to come here for school and stay to contribute to the economy. And finally, it’s important to increase intellectual property protections and R&D tax credits to maximize incentives for innovation.
Some people worry that our political process deals well with crises but tends to have trouble with long-term problems. What will it take for people to understand how urgent this problem is? Do we need another Sputnik?
Another Sputnik would be nice. If the price of gas goes much higher, that could be it—we might realize that we are way behind the curve on energy. That’s why our National Academies report recommends creating a new government research agency for energy, on the same model as the Pentagon agency whose research led to the creation of the Internet. People need to realize that America’s most successful companies are highly globalized. At Intel, because we do 80 percent of our business outside of the U.S., we could be a very successful company without any American employees. That is not our intent, but that is a fact. We’d like to be able to hire Americans, but when we raise these issues, we are speaking more as private citizens with the concerns of our children and grandchildren in mind than we are about the concerns of our company.