Gates calls for a better science and engineering workforce

SEATTLE -- Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chairman and chief software architect, told a national gathering of state lawmakers today that the United States isn’t doing enough to turn out a better educated workforce, especially in science and engineering.

Although the nation has had one of the best education systems in the world, the Chinese and Indian workforces are becoming better educated, Gates said. If the United States wants to remain a dominant economic player, it needs to strengthen education and address shortcomings in the incentive system, curricula and other areas, he said.

Gates spoke at the opening plenary session of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which is holding its annual meeting in Seattle this week. Gate’s keynote was a discussion with Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, on topics such as education, health information technology, computer security and research and development.

Gates is no stranger to those issues having established a $27 billion endowment through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to address global health and learning.

He said the massive job creation in the late 1990s was partially due to the Internet bubble, but “a lot of that is very, very directly attributable to the investments in research that the United States made more than any other country.”

Gates lauded private and public universities for their research and development work and cited the Defense Department’s investment in the Internet that led to the establishment of Internet-based powerhouses such as eBay and Amazon. The nation has been the envy of others in terms of such leading edge industries, he said.

American R&D dollars have also served as an “IQ magnet,” attracting the best minds from other countries.

While recent visa limitations due to national security concerns are a problem, Gates said, he is more concerned about lowered science and engineering standards in the United States. He said there has been a steep rise in the number of engineering students in China and India. In contrast, he said, the fastest growing major in the United States is physical education.

“That one confounds me a bit,” he said.

On the topic of health, Gates said the United States spends 50 percent more -- and sometimes twice as much than other countries -- to get the same results. One of the inefficiencies of the system is the large number of players, including doctors, hospitals and insurers, resulting in a higher overhead for information flow within the system.

The nation has been slow in digitizing information, but that's starting to change as standards take hold. If the health care system can digitize data substantial portions of records within the next three years, health care costs could be reduced and the system would become more efficient.

On computer security, Gates called for more collaboration with law enforcement and new legislation, and he’s optimistic that the industry can provide the tools for people to secure their systems.

He added that he envisioned a transition from a paper-based society to a digitized one, especially in education. Eventually, he said, students could have a tablet PC that would replace textbooks. Students could use video, audio and the Internet through the device, but that would require training teachers and creating more wireless classrooms.

“In terms of impact, we’re not even halfway [there] in terms of what can be done,” Gates said.

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