The US is losing its technical leadership at an accelerating pace, and it is increasingly unlikely there is a chance of halting the decline before serious damage is done to national security and long-term economic growth. Fewer children are leaving high school adequately prepared for college, let alone with the skills sufficient to pursue a technically challenging working career. R&D activities are migrating to low-wage countries at an alarming pace and the number of high school seniors interested in science, mathematics, and/or engineering is substantially less than the number of men and women now retiring from careers in those fields. Here are some of the facts that support these observations:
- Cleveland Plain Dealer. Last December the paper summarized a report by the Ohio Board of Regents that said four out of 10 high school graduates entering Ohio’s public colleges are “ill-prepared and need remedial coursework.” Astoundingly, 62% of the students entering Cleveland State University and Youngstown State University took remedial coursework. At Kent State University and the University of Cincinnati it was 40%.
- Wall Street Journal (Nov 21, 2005). Devesh Kapur, University of Texas-Austin, and John McHale, Queen’s School of Business, Kingston, Ont, pointed out that almost 25% of the college-educated workers in science and engineering are foreign-born—according to the US 2000 census. There’s more: More than half of the workers with doctorates of engineering are foreign-born.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education (Aug 26, 2005) reported that only 12.0% of the freshmen at four-year colleges were considering engineering or physical science as their probable major, down from 12.5% a year earlier. In both surveys, women showed considerably less interest in an engineering or physical science major than men.
On Oct 4, 1957, 183 pounds of electronic gear left the Balkonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and was placed into Earth orbit. Sputnik 1 electrified the world’s media: Russia had beaten the US into space. America’s first effort “to catch up,” Vanguard, fizzled on the launch pad a short time later and was dubbed “Kaputnik”!
Congress had been debating education for most of the 1950s, but the public uproar over Russia’s “victory” encouraged both parties to quickly pass the 1958 National Defense Education Act. It was designed to stimulate advancement of education in science and math. The focus on science and engineering paid off: Four decades of spectacular growth in patents issued, computer technology, the moon landing, biomedical and aerospace achievements, and new petrochemical products and processes.
Who judges the quality of education—without bias? According to a recent report by the Ohio-based Thomas B Fordham Foundation, an organization committed to ensuring quality education for all children, no fewer than 15 states have K-12 science standards rated “F.” An essay by Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch, both senior fellows at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, points out the huge variances between state assessments of student proficiency and the rigorous standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federally funded program begun in 1969 (“Basic Instincts,” Wall Street Journal, Feb 27, 2006).
To illustrate: Ohio rates 79% of its eighth-grade students as proficient in reading, 60% in math. NAEP believes the numbers are 36% and 30%, respectively. Texas’ assessment is 83% and 61%, respectively; NAEP says the numbers are 26% and 25%. Even in education-conscious Connecticut, the state and NAEP assessments vary dramatically—by 41% (reading) and 36% (math).
There are dire consequences for a nation that permits the education of its young citizens to fall below reasonable norms. In the end, it’s not a “rating agency” that determines what educational proficiencies are required, but rather a highly competitive and unforgiving global economy.
India and China are producing more engineers today than all the so-called “industrial” countries combined. America simply cannot sustain its competitive advantage and enviable standard of living if its citizens continue to reject science and engineering curricula and the K-12 education required to become literate in those fields.
In our recent past, talented foreign students graduated from US universities and generally remained here, providing a steady stream of research-oriented talent. America takes credit for the work of many foreign-born researchers and scientists. Werner von Braun, Andy Grove, and Albert Einstein come to mind.
But this changed after 9/11. Many PhDs from elite US institutions now are returning home to seek the fame and fortune once believed could be achieved only in America. Such decisions are facilitated by the easing of state controls on capital, and the encouragement and status given to innovation by other governments and cultures.
The response of talent-hungry US-based corporations may be “shocking” to some: IBM, Microsoft, GE, and others that depend on a steady diet of new product-development and innovative research, have funded large R&D facilities outside our borders. Examples include Ireland, China, and India.
Thus, it should not be surprising that undergraduate and graduate university programs in these countries are attracting talented professors who once favored the US and now see a bright future at home teaching and collaborating with their country’s best and brightest.
Apparently, what goes around really does come around. Twenty years ago, developing countries looking to improve their economies used licensing and investment-tax incentives to attract technology to key sectors—such as energy, information processing, and biotechnology. The strategy worked well, especially when the low labor costs in those countries allowed their products to compete globally.
This success created more opportunities for the citizens of developing nations who have chosen to pursue research-oriented studies and advanced degrees. They applied knowledge gained here to implement technologies at home that reduced production costs still further. So what began as a one-way street in America’s favor—license old technology, reap royalties, preserve home markets—is now increasingly a one-way street in the other direction. Licensed technologies, now superceded by advances borne of research done abroad, are offered to Americans at attractive prices.
Enter the Internet. It leveled the few remaining bumps in the playing field. Students in China, India, Indonesia, or South Korea now need never leave their native land to study whatever subject they desire. And once educated, the Internet has opened a means of communication whereby innovation and technical competence from anywhere can compete equally for capital and sales.
Do we have a viable turnaround plan?
In his 2006 State of the Union Address, President Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative, a $136-billion commitment over 10 years to increase investments in R&D, strengthen education, and encourage entrepreneurship and innovation.
The initiative recognizes that the US, with only 5% of the world’s population, employs almost one-third of its scientists and engineers, and funds almost one-third of its R&D. The initiative includes a commitment to provide job training to enhance labor skills and to support universities that provide world-class education and research opportunities. It also advocates making the R&D tax credit permanent.
We can hope this initiative will bare fruit, but it will be an uphill battle. One piece of evidence: USA Today’s 2006 All-USA College Academic Team (Feb 12, 2006). While no one could possibly argue the academic credentials of the brilliant and committed young men and women chosen for this prestigious honor, only nine of the top 20 collegians majored in science or engineering. More specifically, seven majored in a biology-related field, just one in an engineering-related field.
Of the 40 members of the second and third teams, 18 majored in science or engineering—half in biology or biochemistry, nine in engineering- or other science-related fields. Notable is that Georgia Tech was the only major engineering institution represented among the top 30 students.
For much of the 1950s, the US Chamber of Commerce and other entrenched interests lobbied successfully against education investments by the federal government. Today, the teachers union, while lobbying hard for money, lobbies just as hard against reforms in education.
It took Sputnik in 1957 to galvanize the public, and through it the Congress. In 2006, there is no such visible crisis to influence the public. The non-competitiveness of undereducated children, R&D activities and manufacturing jobs heading overseas, and the decline in science and math interest in America does not make front-page news, but it is a stealth-like killer. Perhaps the wide use of the dollar, the English language in business, and the strength of US-based multi-national corporations are masking the slow spread of this sepsis.
The Bush plan may help, but it is far from what the country really needs. Education has broken down at the local level principally because many parents—rich and poor alike—are “too busy” with themselves, so they leave it to the school system to educate and to teach morality.
Teacher’s unions have exploited this to their advantage with a diversity of additional employment opportunities in counseling and administration. They soak up much of the money that should go to pay good teachers. For an entrenched union, more membership is better than better membership. Think dues here—and the political strength that goes with lobbying.
In sum, education in the US is in tatters, and the federal government cannot fix it with money. The money available from the Bush plan will flow over a decade. Small potatoes. Think of what schools will be like in 2016 if local standards do not improve quickly. Waiting for federal money is not an option.
Dick Feagler, an icon of the Ohio newspaper fraternity wrote in his Cleveland Plain Dealer column (Feb 12, 2006): “Cleveland hungers for miracles…. Its school system is in shambles…. If there is any chance of luring the middle class back into town, there has to be a good school system…. Schools will get no better until the parents get better.”
The January 2006 employment report was very encouraging: Over 190,000 new jobs created. At the same time, Ford announced it would lay off 30,000 workers and GM hovers near bankruptcy. This employment conflict will continue to play out over the balance of the decade alongside our competitive/education crisis. If this crisis is seen as an immediate threat and a challenge, and parents react at the local level, then perhaps the President’s initiative will be timely. If the crisis is misunderstood or unrecognized, the federal investment will have been wasted. Our country’s economy and security are at risk, and your grandchildren’s futures as well.
Today James F Wood is director of the US-China Clean Energy Research Center: Advanced Coal Technology Consortium, at the West Virginia University Research Corp. Earlier, the Clarkson University-educated chemical engineer served as president of three companies well known to power professionals: Babcock Power Inc, Babcock & Wilcox Company, and Wheelabrator Environmental Systems International. He also was deputy assistant secretary for clean coal at DOE for three years.