When Suzanne Berger arrived at MIT, in 1968, the United States was in the middle of a three-decade-long economic expansion. Much of that growth occurred because so many Americans spent their time making things: about a quarter of the country’s jobs were in the manufacturing sector. This manufacturing-based prosperity seemed a simple fact of life to Berger—and as a newly hired assistant professor of political science who studied the views of French peasants, she did not devote much thought to it.
Much has changed since then. Fewer than 10 percent of employed Americans now work in manufacturing. And Berger, unlikely as it might have seemed in 1968, has become one of the world’s leading authorities on manufacturing in the United States. She has conducted extensive research on globalization and industrial activity, served as a key member of MIT research groups studying those subjects since the 1980s, and written influential texts such as the 2006 book How We Compete.
Indeed, Berger may be the best-known social scientist asserting that a renewal of American manufacturing is not just desirable but possible, if only we can learn more about how technological innovations fuel productivity. In Berger’s view, although laboratory research continues to thrive in the United States, too often it remains untapped commercially. And she disagrees strongly with those who insist that U.S. manufacturing is in a state of irreversible decline and that labor costs will force many remaining factories and production jobs to move to developing countries.
“I don’t buy the argument that manufacturing is a sunset activity destined to disappear in countries with high wages and well-educated populations,” she says. “There is no inevitability about it. It is possible to do profitable manufacturing in the United States. This is not just a vestigial activity but a vibrant activity.”