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Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things.
American ingenuity and innovation, the twin engine of the country's economy since World War II, is in danger of losing steam and job growth potential if federal legislators allow "automatic" spending cuts to kick in next year rather than earmarking federal funds to advance education, research and manufacturing, according Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield.
Hockfield sounded the economic alarm bell Wednesday at the Commonwealth Club of California in Silicon Valley.
"The big question is: Where will our much needed jobs come from?" she asked. "Will we let other nations lead or will we seize the lead?"
Spending cuts may help solve America's immediate budget deficit woes, but Hockfield warned of dire consequences to not making critical, long-term investments that will drive the innovation economy that has generated more than half the new jobs in the last 50 years.
She highlighted Silicon Valley's role in making the country a global leader in semiconductors after serious threats from a fast rising memory chip industry in Japan during the 1980s. Hockfield extolled how industry and government leaders worked together during that time to create SEMATECH, a consortium that helped America recapture the tech lead with semiconductors.
"The entire computer industry came out of basic investments in research," she said. "We have to engage with government leaders and help them understand what we do. There are very intelligent people in Washington, but political forces trump all.
She claims there has been a "lackadaisical approach to education" and many government leaders "don't understand the pipeline, the engine of economic growth."
The 1990s were the most successful decade for the innovation economy, according to Hockfield, who noted that between 1995 and 2000 America sustained 4.2 percent GDP growth and 22 million jobs were created each year.
The United States remains a leading producer of advanced technology products, but its dominance has eroded in the past 10 years ago. Hockfield wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed, "We enjoyed a trade surplus in advanced technology manufactured goods; today, that category accounts for an $81 billion annual trade deficit."
Hockfield, the first woman to lead MIT, sees a future shaped by engineers collaborating with physical and life scientists to bring new discoveries that benefit industries and lasting economic growth. Recently, she was appointed to the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a group of industry, academic and government leaders looking for ways to speed research in advanced materials and processes.
"Don't just create ideas, also make products here," she said. "Buying back technologies that we invented changed our surplus into deficit. We need to have a substantial fraction of technologies that are made in America."
Despite the stinging criticism, Hockfield praised Silicon Valley for being one of the industrial wonders of the world and integral to maintaining America's innovation lead.
"It's where big, new ideas get transformed into products that create new markets and put people to work," she said.