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U.S. Drops in Global Innovation Rankings

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The United States may be home to Facebook, Google, Apple, and taco shells made of Doritos, but according to a recent international study, our nation is becoming less innovative, at least compared to last year. After ranking 7th in 2011, the U.S. is ranked 10th in this year's Global Innovation Index, a massive report published by Insead, an international business school, and the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations.

The report ranks 141 nations on nearly 100 factors related to innovation, in areas like "Business sophistication," "Human capital & research," and "Knowledge & technology outputs." Switzerland and Sweden are ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, for the second straight year. Rounding out the top five are Singapore, Finland, and the United Kingdom.

The survey is divided into 21 sub-groups which contain related metrics. In only "Creative intangibles" (No. 84), "Ecological sustainability" (No. 73), and "Trade & competition" (No. 69), does the U.S. rank worse than it does in two education sub-groups.

In a category related to K-12 education, the U.S. is ranked 31st, owing to low rankings in education expenditures. Our pupil-to-teacher ratio in secondary education, at 13.8:1, is ranked 61st. In higher education, the U.S. ranks second in enrollment, but 74th in students graduating with science and engineering degrees. Elsewhere, the U.S. ranks No. 1 in the amount of students taking the GMATs, the entry exam for business school, but 53rd on GMAT mean score.

Take these numbers with a grain of salt; the top three ranked countries for K-12 education are Ireland, Uzbekistan, and Lesotho. You can read the full ratings in each category for the U.S. below.

Many of these rankings are things we already know, but it's interesting to see the statistics put into a bigger picture as it relates to innovation. It's also strange to have a word as nebulous—and, at times, meaningless, as has been speculated on this blog before—as innovation quantified and treated as a metric.

But it's also tough to give the rankings a lot of weight. Does teacher-to-pupil ratio truly spark innovation? Some would define virtual learning, with its teacher-to-pupil ratio in the hundreds, as a leading example of innovation in education. Similarly, America's top rankings in the category of "Market sophistication," including the amount of stocks traded (No. 1), the value of venture capital deals (No. 5), and the ease of getting credit (No. 2), could be construed as vibrant business development for some and a sign of reckless spending, or even a bubble, to others.

As The Economist points out, some factors are simply more important than others, and some factors—like spawning profitable, globally leading technology companies like those aforementioned—cannot be quantified.

"The crux of the issue is two fold," says a post on The Economist's "Graphic Detail" blog. "First, the index is misnamed. It is meant to measure the 'enabling environment' for innovation, rather than the product itself."

For instance, South Korea and Japan, two of the most internet-connected nations with among the most robust technology economies, are ranked 21st and 25th respectively (for what it's worth, both of those countries also finished in the top 8 on the most recent PISA survey in 2009).

Some of America's drop can probably be chalked up to the recession; the report itself suggests a lack of growth compared to other top nations is the likely cause for the fall.

So, if we didn't know already, in order to create innovators through education we need to increase rigor in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math instruction; teach students business acumen and entrepreneurship; and lower class sizes. Get to it!

Oh, and there's another factor we should watch out for: We are No. 2 in the world in video uploads to YouTube. According to the Global Innovation Index, this is a good thing, but I can't see the harm in dropping a few spots before next year.

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