POSITION & HOLD

Education brings tech benefits—so why does the US continue to fail so badly?

US lags far behind in science, tech, math and engineering.

By Marvin Cetron
Pres, Forecasting Intl


TopCoder Open is a computer programming championship open to students from around the world. Unlike Americans, these students from Poland’s Warsaw University regularly make it into the finals. By contrast, in 2009 not one American won a TopCoder Open event.

For computer programmers, the TopCoder Open is the Olympics. It is the one competition on the planet where the world’s best can prove beyond any doubt that they outclass the rest. For nonprogrammers, TopCoder is something even more important—it’s a measure of leadership in a field of technology that is critical to our economic future.

Whichever country proves its high-tech chops in this global test may have not have shown itself destined for future prosperity—but anyone who can’t cut it probably hasn’t a chance. Cut to the punch line: Not a single American won an event at the 2009 TopCoder Open.

Americans simply are no longer educated and trained well enough to be global leaders in science and technology. The failure of our schools is undermining our position in these critical fields. In the long run, this is a bad omen for the US economy, for American high-tech industries such as aircraft manufacturing, and for business aviation.

It is a bad sign too for millions of people whose lives could be constrained by tomorrow’s slower economic growth. Even before the computer and biotech revolutions, its edge made the US the world’s economic and political leader.

Today, it is the ultimate driving force for prosperity and growth. Losing it could easily send America into an era of economic and political decline, to be replaced on the world stage by whichever country assumes its technological mantle.

There is still time for the US to mend its ways, but things now are not looking good. Last year’s TopCoder Open included 9 events in specialties such as computer architecture, assembly and component design. It drew 4200 entrants from around the world. There were 70 finalists in the 9 events. Twenty were Chinese, 10 were Russian, 6 were from Indonesia, 6 from Ukraine.

Four were Canadian. Argentina, Poland and the Philippines produced 3 finalists each. Only 2 Americans won their way to the finals. And there they lost out. Winners included 4 from China and 1 each from Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, Australia and Canada.

Americans rank above the global median score, set at 500, but trail far behind the world’s best science students.

The most prestigious event at the TopCoder Open is the algorithm contest. It tests the programmer’s ability to analyze a problem and cast it into a form that computers can solve efficiently.

This is the skill (and native talent) that carries a really good programmer into the small, elite group of coders whom other coders revere, and who often produce the most innovative new software for science, industry and consumers.

The winner was “CrazybOy.” That’s his online “handle,” of course. His real name is Bin Jin. He is an 18-year-old high school student from Shanghai. If that came as a surprise, it would be no more than an interesting piece of technotrivia. It doesn’t. In a field pioneered largely by Americans and Brits, recent winners of the algorithm competition have all been either Chinese or East European.

Most have been remarkably young. Much the same trend can be seen in the ACM Intl Collegiate Programming Contest, sponsored by IBM and run under the auspices of the Assn for Computing Machinery. The competition is open to student teams from universities around the world.

In 2007, 6700 teams from 1821 universities participated in regional competitions and the world finals. Since 2004, 28 teams have won gold medals at the ACM-ICPC World Finals. Exactly 2 have been American, both from MIT.

Thirteen Russian teams have won. So have 6 Chinese teams, including 1 from Taiwan. Most of the rest have been from former vassal states of the USSR. There is growing concern that these and other indicators signal the intellectual decline—and therefore the coming economic and political decay—of the world’s last superpower.

The National Academy of Sciences warns, “The scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength. Although many people assume that the US will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world.

We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost—and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all.” All this is bad news for a country whose prosperity is linked intimately to its technological mastery. It may be even worse news for corporate aviation.

According to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, R&D accounts for about 6.6% of economic growth. It does not sound like much, but compounded over time it adds up. Losing our technological edge means losing some of that growth and, in effect, giving it to another country.

Worse, at least for some people, it means growing less competitive in critical sectors of the global marketplace. Prominent among these is aerospace, one of the most R&D-intensive industries going.

Lose your edge in this industry and you are guaranteed to lose sales. Lose enough sales and eventually you need to cut back on expenses. Corporate aviation is a key business tool, so it will be one of the last affected—yet lost sales mean lost customers and lost reasons to visit them.

As economic growth slows and profits weaken at many companies, the demand for corporate aviation, and the ability to pay for it, could eventually begin to sag as well. In a nation of declining technology, the professional pilot’s job is nearly as much on the line as anyone else’s.

What is going on?

America faces 2 growing problems with its sci-tech infrastructure. It doesn’t have nearly enough people in the technical specialties. And the ones it does have aren’t good enough. In fact, the US will soon begin to run short of personnel in the so-called STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It’s a matter of simple arithmetic. As of 2006, there were about 488,000 scientists and 1.5 million engineers in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Add 267,000 technicians, perhaps 34,000 mathematicians and postsecondary math teachers, and about 2.7 million computer scientists, programmers, engineers and related professionals, and you have the scientific and technical core of the US economy.

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