December 01, 2010, 10:44 AM — U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the only member of President Barack Obama's cabinet with a degree in a hard science, believes the U.S. is at risk of losing its leadership in technology as the nation's competitiveness deteriorates.
Chu, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997, used statistics and blunt language in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington Monday to point out that the U.S. lead in technology is declining and is in need of turnaround. He characterized the current situation as a " Sputnik moment " for the U.S., particularly in the area of clean energy development.
Chu illustrated his concern, in part, by describing the decline of the U.S. share of worldwide high technology manufacturing. The U.S. hit a peak in 1998 by capturing about 25% of the world's technology export market. The U.S. share has declined steadily since then to the current 12% to 13% of the global market.
Chart: Percentage of global high-tech exports from the U.S., EU and China.
The U.S. has developed "the greatest innovation machine" in the world, but Chu said that "today this leadership is at risk - we are no longer leaders in manufacturing, but more startling we are no longer the leaders in high technology manufacturing."
China has seen its global share of tech export market increase from 6% in 1995 to 20% in 2008, Chu said.
TechAmerica, an industry group, reported Tuesday that the overall value of tech exports fell 16% in 2009, from $223 billion in 2008 to $188 billion.
Josh James, vice president for research and industry analysis at TechAmerica, attributed last year's decline to the economic downturn. Otherwise, tech exports in the U.S. exports have been increasing. From 2003 to 2009, the value of U.S. tech exports increased by 13%, he said.
The U.S. overall increase in tech exports is due to rising global demand. TechAmerica produces the annual export report, in part, to help make a case that Congress should pass pending free trade agreements, this year with Columbia, Panama and South Korea.
High-tech exports account for nearly 1 million jobs in the U.S, he added.
Chu cited the role of some of U.S. technology developments, such as transistor, integrated circuit, GPS and the Internet, for the "wonderful things" they did to create wealth in the United States in past years. Similarly, Chu sees development of alternative energy vehicles, renewable energy, high speed rail and supercomputing, as important to maintaining U.S. technology leads.