President Barack Obama's call for a "new Sputnik moment'' in his annual State of the Union speech was a dramatic wake-up call for America. Now, he should expand the reach of his message, and turn it into a call to action for all countries of the Americas.
In his Jan. 25 address, Obama said the United States is falling behind other countries in education, science, technology and innovation. The United States needs to invest much more in science and technology programs, much like it did in the 1950s after the Soviet Union sent the Sputnik satellite into space, and Washington started the space program that eventually led to the first manned spacecraft to the moon, he said.
``The world has changed,'' Obama said. ``China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with great emphasis on math and science. They are investing in research and new technologies.''
``Just recently, China became the home to the world's largest private solar facility, and the world's fastest computer,'' he said. To succeed in this new environment, ``we need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,'' he added.
It was the centerpiece of Obama's most important scheduled speech of the year, and it carried a bold proposal: to drastically increase U.S. investments in education, technology and scientific research, while cutting almost everything else from the budget to reduce the giant U.S. budget deficit.
Obama called on Congress to fund the training of 100,000 new teachers in math, science and technology, as well as huge investments in biomedical research, information technology and clean energy technology.
Obama's speech should be required reading in Latin America, where despite an eight-year cycle of strong economic growth largely due to high world commodity prices, most countries are falling behind the rest of the world in education and innovation, but few are paying attention. Consider:
In the recently released Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development's PISA tests measuring 15-year-olds' proficiency in math, science and reading comprehension, China's city of Shanghai, Singapore and Finland occupied the first places. The United States ranked 17th, Spain 33rd, Chile 44th, Uruguay 47th, Mexico 48th, Colombia 52nd, Brazil 53rd, Argentina 58 and Peru 63.
Only 2 percent of all world investments in research and development of new products are carried out in Latin America. By comparison, 36 percent take place in the United States and Canada, 32 percent in Europe, and 27 percent in Asia, according to Ibero-American Network of Science and Technology Indicators.
All 32 Latin American countries together, including giants Brazil and Mexico, register less than 3 percent of the patents registered annually by just one Asian country, South Korea, according to the U.S. Trademarks and Patents Office.
In 2009, South Korea registered 8,800 patents, while Brazil registered only 103, Mexico 60, and Argentina 45.
There is not one single Latin American university among the best 100 universities of the world ranked respectively by the British-based Times Higher Education Supplement and the Shanghai, China-based Jiaotong University, despite the fact that Brazil and Mexico are among the world's 12 largest economies.
Many Latin American countries have the longest school vacations on earth. While the school year has 243 days in Japan and 220 days in South Korea, it has 200 days in Mexico and 190 days in Argentina, but -- when you include teacher strikes and unscheduled holidays -- it often numbers 160 days.
My opinion: If President Obama was searching for a theme for his Latin America policy, and for a concrete plan to take to the next Summit of the Americas to be held in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012, this is it. He should broaden his State of the Union address to include the whole hemisphere, and offer U.S. cooperation and know-how to improve education, science and technology standards across the region.
To grow steadily and reduce poverty at much faster rates, Latin America badly needs a ``Sputnik moment'' to wake it up from decades of complacency and declining education standards. Education, science, technology and innovation should not be just a U.S. obsession, but the new joint cause of the Americas.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at firstname.lastname@example.org. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.