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

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

Students gather at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the world capital of particle physics. The US largely abandoned the field in 1991.

These 5 million people generate all the scientific breakthroughs, new technologies and truly novel products that have made the US the richest economy and most powerful nation in the world. Nearly half of these critical professionals are nearing retirement.

On the other side of the equation, the US is producing too few new STEM professionals—only 25–30% of high school graduates who enter college plan to major in science or engineering. Fewer than half of them receive a degree in those fields.

In 2005, the most recent year for which numbers are readily available, that amounted to just 235,000 new scientists and engineers. The Dept of Labor estimates that the US needs 114,000 engineering graduates each year. According to most reports, it produces about 70,000. Only 6% of American undergraduates are engineering majors. In Europe the number is 12%.

In China it is 40%. “Without workers equipped with the science, technology, engineering and math skills to succeed in the 21st century, the US will lose the global race for talent and its position as the economic leader of the world,” Chamber of Commerce Pres Thomas Donahue warned in 2008.

The chamber is one of 16 organizations forming a coalition called Tapping America’s Potential. In 2005, the group set a goal of graduating 400,000 college students in the STEM specialties each year by 2015. Donahue’s comment appeared in a report warning that the country is nowhere near meeting that mandate.

Now consider this—the brightest 20% of Chinese students outnumber all the young people currently living in the US. The same is true in India. In 2005, 235,619 students in the US received degrees in natural science and engineering.

In China the number was 715,720. Comparable figures are not available for India, but they most likely show the same advantage. And as these nations continue to develop, many more of their children will receive the kind of education it takes to succeed in the modern world.

Martin Jischke, formerly president of Purdue University, has looked at these numbers and reached the inevitable conclusion. He estimates that soon fully 90% of all scientists and engineers in the world will live in Asia. After that, China and Asia can only pull further ahead in the race for prosperity and global dominance. This is a grim prospect for the US. Its standing as the world leader in science and technology is not merely in doubt—it is vanishing rapidly.

School daze

We often hear that raw numbers like these don’t really matter, because while the US may not have the most scientists, it still has the best, and they are the ones who count. They are the pioneers whose breakthroughs will spin off technological revolutions and economic prosperity. But, as we saw in the TopCoder Open, that may no longer be true.

The US is unlikely to regain its lead soon, because in international tests of science and math proficiency American students are clearly inferior. In 2007, for example, Trends in Intl Mathematics & Science Study found the best 4th and 8th-grade science students came from Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.

In 4th grade, Americans came in 8th, tied with students from Russia, Latvia, Kazakstan and 5 other countries. By 8th grade they had slipped to 11th. And that was the good news. In the Programme for Intl Student Assessment, Americans fare much worse. In 2006, the most recent results now available, the group tested 15-year-olds in science, math and reading. Students from 57 countries participated.

Those from the US came in below the top 20 in all these critical fields. In science proficiency, US students placed 29th—behind those of Latvia, Croatia, Estonia, Slovenia and too many other countries. With that kind of beginning, it is hard to see how American students can eventually become scientists and engineers as capable as those who received a better grounding in the fundamentals elsewhere.

As recently as 10 years ago, the US could have made up for its shortage of native talent with science-minded immigrants. Of the 2.7 million foreign students who studied abroad in 2004, more than 1 in 5 chose to study in the US. They came to study at top American colleges, and many settled down for their entire careers.

More than 1/3 of the Nobel Prizes awarded for research carried out in the US have gone to scientists born elsewhere. And, on average, every 100 foreign students who receive an American PhD in science or engineering produce 62 patent applications, according to the Institute of Intl Education.

That is not happening nearly as often these days. Students still come to study, but more and more of them are taking their newfound knowledge back home to build careers, and often to start the companies that will bring new prosperity to their native lands.

A sea of troubles

There are all too many reasons for this decline. One is funding. As the US economy depends ever more critically on research and development, Washington has sacrificed these key activities to economic concerns. We see this most clearly in high-energy physics, where the costs exceed those of any discipline but manned spaceflight.

The US gave up on particle physics. Once, it was the world’s home for state-of-the-art particle physics. But by the early 1980s, the machines required to make further progress in this most basic field of science had grown so costly that only governments could afford to build them. The obvious next step was the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC).

It was to be the world’s largest atom smasher, driving subatomic particles around a ring of magnets 54 miles in circumference. It would have been more powerful even than Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), currently the world’s most potent particle accelerator. In 1987, the project was supposed to cost $4.4 billion.

Four years later, 14.6 miles of tunnel had been bored under Waxahachie TX, and cost estimates had skyrocketed to $12.0 billion. Struggling to pay down the massive budget deficit left by the previous administration, Congress and President Clinton killed the project. The result was immediate. Without the SSC, particle physicists could no longer carry out cutting-edge experiments in North America.

Instead, they began migrating to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, located northwest of Geneva. This “reverse brain drain” accelerated last year, when CERN’s LHC went into operation. Nearly 8000 scientists and engineers make their intellectual homes there. A single project based on the LHC employs more than 900 scientists from the US.

They, along with many from other countries, would have been working in the US if the SSC had been available. For the next major advance in particle accelerators, China may take the lead. Scientists there have dreamt for years of building the International Linear Collider (ILC)—a new electron-positron collider 19 miles long (and expandable to 31 miles.)

Like all of the largest particle accelerators, present and future, the ILC will be a collaboration between Europe, the US and other participating countries. But still more physicists from the US will spend their most productive years on a distant continent. America’s commitment to most other research and development has also shrunk.

Although R&D spending is growing in raw-dollar terms, when measured as a percentage of the total federal budget or as a fraction of the US GDP, research funding has been shrinking for some 15 years. In 2005, the US spent about 2.68% of its GDP on R&D. That was down from 2.76% in 2001. It could have been worse. In the FY2007 budget, it was.


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