Innovation: America Is Falling Behind, How to Fix It

Only a slight breeze blew across the plains of Inner Mongolia on a recent afternoon, but the giant turbines at the Huitengxile Wind Power Field were spinning steadily. This facility, 200 miles northwest of Beijing, has 550 turbines churning out enough juice to power a small city, and inside a monitoring station, plant manager Zhang Jianjun points to a wall chart showing the 11 different suppliers of the high-tech windmills. Four are Chinese companies, but when Zhang is asked to pick his favorite, his nationalism is trumped by a desire for quality. "General Electric," he says, citing its reliability. "I'm excited when all of the turbines are working."

GE's roots lie in Thomas Edison's Menlo Park lab, the site of some of the most significant innovation in our history. Today millions of Edison's spiritual descendants—engineers, geneticists, programmers, entrepreneurs—are toiling in basic research across the country. But amid a profound economic slowdown, Americans have real doubts about their ability to maintain their edge in innovation, even as they agree that technological innovation is more important than ever.

Those insights, gleaned from the NEWSWEEK-Intel Global Innovation Survey, inspired us to consider what it will take for Americans to once again believe they are at the forefront of technological innovation. Funded by Intel and conducted by the polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, the survey—an online questionnaire administered to 4,800 adults in the United States, China, Germany, and the United Kingdom—set out to compare their views about the innovation race. NEWSWEEK had editorial control over the survey questions, as well as the interpretation of the results.

On some issues there is widespread agreement: two thirds of respondents believe innovation will be more important than ever to the U.S. economy over the next 30 years. But the survey shows some striking contrasts as well. Eighty-one percent of Chinese believe the U.S. is staying ahead of China on innovation; only 41 percent of Americans agree. To find the next big breakthrough, Americans are focused on improving math and science education, while Chinese are more concerned about developing creative problem-solving and business skills.

Around the globe, there are signs that the recession may be easing—and as it does, people of all nationalities will resume their hunt for the best products, the best investments, and the best jobs. As the world's economy speeds back up, regaining our faith in our ability to innovate will be critical. View the NEWSWEEK-Intel Survey highlights here.