Gabriel Aeppli was born in Switzerland, but when he was 1 year old, his father came to the U.S. to pursue a career as a mathematician. Back then, America was a scientific "city on the hill," a place where enormous resources, academic freedom, a tradition of skepticism and a history of excellence lured everyone from astronomers to zoologists from all over the world, and like Aeppli's father, many of them never had any interest in leaving.
Aeppli, now 48, attended M.I.T., where he got a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and went on to work at Bell Labs, the legendary research arm of AT&T. Then he moved on to the NEC research laboratory, outside Princeton, N.J., as a senior research scientist. But while industrial labs used to be well-funded havens for freewheeling scientific inquiry, says Aeppli, "my career was limited because opportunities to lead were very few." So he left for an academic job in Britain. He now holds a chair in physics at University College London and also directs the London Center for Nanotechnology. "I've been able to start with a clean sheet of paper and create something unique in a world-class city," he says. "We doubt that could be done anywhere else."
Edison Liu is a Hong Kong native who studied in the U.S. and eventually rose to become director of the division of clinical sciences at the National Cancer Institute. But in 2001 the government of Singapore made him an offer he couldn't refuse: the directorship of the brand new Genome Institute along with a $25 million starting budget--part of a $288 million integrated network of life-science research centers and biotech start-ups called Biopolis. Says Liu: "I came because I saw that the entire leadership of the country, the fabric of the country was thirsting for biology."
If those were just isolated cases, they would be easy to dismiss. Such stories, though, have become disturbingly common. After more than a half-century of unchallenged superiority in virtually every field of science and technology, from basic research to product development, America is starting to lose ground to other nations. It's still on top for now; the U.S continues to lead the world in economic performance, business and government efficiency and in the strength of its infrastructure. As recently as 2001, the U.S., with just 6% of the world's population, churned out 41% of its Ph.D.s. And its labs regularly achieve technological feats, as last month's rollout of a new, superpowerful Macintosh computer and the launch of a space probe to Pluto make clear.
But by almost any measure--academic prizes, patents granted to U.S. companies, the trade deficit in high-technology products--we're losing ground while countries like China, South Korea and India are catching up fast. Unless things change, they will overtake us, and the breathtaking burst of discovery that has been driving our economy for the past half-century will be over. In his 2005 best seller, The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman argues that globalization has collapsed the old hierarchy of economic engine-nations into a world where the ambitious everywhere can compete across borders against one another, and he identifies the science problem as a big part of that development. Borrowing a phrase from Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he calls it America's "quiet crisis."