Acronyms have been used lately to describe various groups of world nations. Readers may be familiar with “PIIGS”, namely Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain, which are the nations now teetering on default after years of lax fiscal policies, and unrealistic expectations for the Euro. Readers may also have heard of “BRIC”, namely Brazil, Russia, India and China, which many observers now believe constitute a powerhouse of large, upwardly mobile nations that very likely will dominate the economy and political structure of the 21st century world.  All except Russia inarguably have show extraordinary economic growth since the millennium.

We would like to introduce a new acronym: “STRAW”, short for “Science, Technology and Research All Wasted”, which we feel, sadly, characterizes many of the misguided policies of large first-world nations, particularly the U.S., which nations appear to be turning their collective backs on the historical policies of education and scientific research as a tool for economic and social advancement.

Recent studies are not encouraging — especially for the USA. Here is some of the latest data on educational funding for major industrialized nations, taken from the latest UN report [UN2010]:

Nation % of GDP on education % adults with secondary education
Denmark 7.9 68.1
Norway 6.7 87.3
Sweden 6.7 80.3
U.K. 5.6 55.7
U.S.A. 5.5 89.7
Canada 4.9 79.6
Australia 4.7 73.4
Spain 4.4 46.9
Italy 4.3 46.7

In spite of these expenditures, outcomes are not particularly encouraging. In the following table, the first two columns contain the latest results from the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” (TIMSS) for Grade Four and Grade Eight, respectively [Institute2009], while the third column contains rankings of math performance among 15-year-olds in a separate study by the OECD [OECD2003]:

Grade Four TIMSS Rankings

  1. Hong Kong (607)
  2. Singapore (599)
  3. Chinese Taipei (576)
  4. Japan (568)
  5. Kazakhstan (549)
  6. Russian Federation (544)
  7. England (541)
  8. Latvia (537)
  9. Netherlands (535)
  10. Lithuania (530)
  11. United States (529)
  12. Germany (525)
  13. Denmark (523)
  14. Australia (516)
  15. Hungary (510)
  16. Italy (507)
  17. Austria (505)
  18. Sweden (503)
  19. Slovenia (502)
  20. Armenia 9500)
  21. Slovak Republic (496)
  22. Scotland (494)
  23. New Zealand (492)
  24. Czech Republic (486)
  25. Norway (473)
  26. Ukraine (469)
  27. Georgia (438)
  28. Iran (402)
  29. Algeria (378)
  30. Colombia (355)
Grade Eight TIMSS Rankings

  1. Chinese Taipei (598)
  2. Republic of Korea (597)
  3. Singapore (593)
  4. Hong Kong (572)
  5. Japan (570)
  6. Hungary (517)
  7. England (513)
  8. Russian Federation (512)
  9. United States (508)
  10. Lithuania (506)
  11. Czech Republic (504)
  12. Slovenia (501)
  13. Armenia (499)
  14. Australia (496)
  15. Sweden (491)
  16. Malta (488)
  17. Scotland (487)
  18. Serbia (486)
  19. Italy (480)
  20. Malaysia (474)
  21. Norway (469)
  22. Cyprus (465)
  23. Bulgaria (464)
  24. Israel (463)
  25. Ukraine (462)
  26. Romania (461)
  27. Bosnia/Herzegovina (456)
  28. Lebanon (449)
  29. Thailand (441)
  30. Turkey (432)
15-Year-Olds OECD Math Rankings

  1. Hong Kong
  2. Finland
  3. South Korea
  4. Netherlands
  5. Liechtenstein
  6. Japan
  7. Canada
  8. Belgium
  9. Macao
  10. Switzerland
  11. Australia
  12. New Zealand
  13. Czech Republic
  14. Iceland
  15. Denmark
  16. France
  17. Sweden
  18. Austria
  19. Germany
  20. Ireland
  21. Slovak Republic
  22. Norway
  23. Luxembourg
  24. Poland
  25. Hungary
  26. Spain
  27. Latvia
  28. United States
  29. Russian Federation
  30. Portugal

(Note: Not all nations participate in these studies, so, for instance, Canada ranks seventh in the third table, but did not participate in and thus does not appear in first two tables. This in part because in Canada, education is a provincial responsibility; some provinces have participated in these studies.)

In comparing the above data, it is interesting to note that while first-world nations do fairly well among 15-year-old students, the Asian “tigers,” namely Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Korea, dominate the top positions for fourth and eighth graders. This seems to indicate that the Asian countries are on the rise, and that future rankings will show them superior even among 15-year-olds.

U.S. performance is mediocre among fourth and eighth grade students, ranking below the Asian tigers, but is downright dismal among 15-year-olds.  (Note that the old  Commonwealth dominions  perform significantly better.) This by itself is not a reason to declare disaster. What is a disaster is that this disappointing performance is delivered by a nation whose economy, arguably more than another single nation, is dependent on a steady stream of top math- and science-educated workers. Perhaps even more worrisome for the U.S. is the fact that in spite of a greatly increased focus on education, especially K-12 education, for at least the past 10-15 years, improvement has only been modest. In fact, since 1995, U.S. grade four scores on the TIMSS study have increased only 11 points, as opposed to 57 points for England, 50 points for Hong Kong, and 40 points for Slovenia. Similarly, at grade eight, the U.S. improvement of 16 points ranks well behind Colombia (47 points) and Lithuania (34 points) [Institute2009].

The “threat” of the Asian tigers is real. China, for example, has made remarkable progress in scientific research. In 1998, China’s research output was 20,000 articles per year. In 2006, it reached 83,000, overtaking Japan, Germany and the U.K. Last year it reached 120,000 articles, second only to the U.S. at 350,000, and is on track to surpass the U.S. by 2020 [Adams2010]. Obviously, quantity is not the same as quality, and some have expressed concern that only a fraction of these papers truly contain top-tier results. But given that China is home to nearly 25% of the world’s population, it is only a question of when, rather than if, China will become the world’s most prolific producer of scientific knowledge [Adams2010]. In a similar vein, China graduates more engineers than the U.S., and thus is well poised to become the world’s high-tech manufacturing center for the 21st century [Friedman2007, pg. 257].

India has made similar strides, although not quite as dramatic as China. In his book The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman documents that in the same way that China is well-poised to be a leader of manufacturing, India is similarly well poised to become a dominant center for high-tech services. Already India has numerous centers for accounting (done on behalf of first-world clients) and even medical “tourism.” As Friedman notes, both of these two nations are not racing the first world to the bottom or the middle of the economic pyramid; instead they are racing to the top [Friedman2007, pg. 265].

Surely one would think that in the first-world nations, faced with such daunting challenges, would move to increase funding for education and scientific research. Instead, incredible, the opposite is occurring. This is most starkly evident in the U.S.A., where California, the home to arguably the world’s leading system of public higher education, has increased tuition for University of California students from roughly $3000 just ten years ago to over $12,000 today. These increases effectively block many thousands of middle class California families from sending students to the UC system, even when they have been accepted.

Similar recent budget cuts have wreaked havoc with scientific research in the U.K. As David Willetts, Minister of Universities, recently declared, “[S]avage cuts to hardware and facilities budgets would transform scientific research in the UK. … The greatest difficulties are expected at cash-strapped, middle-ranking universities, where research and teaching are in danger because there is not enough money to replace ageing lab equipment.” [Sample2011].

The situation in Australia is correspondingly bleak. While the country escaped the global recession and all decision makers pay lip service to the needs for a STEM educated workforce, the funds to support such verbiage are not forthcoming. Indeed, in the most recent 2011 budget, the government pulled the plug on several highly effective school outreach programmes run by the Australian Academy of Science.  Deficit-reduction mania runs as rampant in Australia as in the UK or the USA.

Many readers will be aware of the epic battle now underway in the U.S., where President Obama and Congressional leaders are struggling to find an acceptable common ground between fiscal prudence and societal needs. While we agree that the U.S. budget cannot continue to run deeply in the red, certainly it is true that funding cuts for education or scientific research will seriously backfire in the long run. We can only hope that governmental leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world will consider the fate of future generations as they allocate these funds.


To return to our title, national governments are not domestic households and their budgets should not be determined by polemics and cheap analogies about belt-tightening and “living within ones means” — whether uttered by Tony Abbott in Australia or Eric Cantor in America. We are at risk like the three little PIIGS of living in STRAW houses while the BRIC economies build solid infrastructure both physical and intellectual.


  1. [Adams2010] Jonathan Adams, “Get Ready for China’s Domination of Science,” New Scientist, 06 Jan 2010, available at Online article.
  2. [Asimov2011] Nanette Asimov, “UC Tuition Hits $12,192 — a 9.6% Increase,” San Francisco Chronicle, 15 Jul 2011, available at Online article.
  3. [Friedman2007] Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Picador, New York, 2007.
  4. [Institute2009] Institute for Education Sciences, “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study”, U.S. Department of Education, 2007 study updated with a 2009 overview, available at Online article.
  5. [OEDC2003] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “International Comparison of Math, Reading and Science Skills Among 15-Year-Olds,” 2003, available at Online article.
  6. [Sample2011] Ian Sample, “Research cuts will force scientists to share laboratories, top academics warn,” U.K. Guardian, 11 May 2011, available at Online article.
  7. [UN2010] Human Development Report 2010, United Nations, 2010, available at Online article.

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