America is worried that its global scientific advantage is in jeopardy, but is the picture really all that bleak?

Credit: Slawomir Jastrzebski

The numbers are frightening. They indicate that the flow of scientists and engineers graduating from American universities is slowing to a trickle. At the same time, schools in China and India have opened the proverbial floodgates.

The National Academies shined a spotlight on the figures in its influential “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report. According to senior government officials, this report spurred President Bush to announce the American Competitiveness Initiative during his 2006 State of the Union address.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings dropped figures from the NAS report in a Newsweek op-ed: “Last year,” she wrote, “China’s schools graduated more than 600,000 engineers and India’s schools produced 350,000, compared with 70,000 in America.”

Partisans on either end of the political spectrum seem equally eager to trumpet the data—both Edward Kennedy and Newt Gingrich, for example, cited them when warning about America’s ever-more-precarious economic advantage over upstart developing nations.

What worries all these science alarmists is not that China and India will emerge as major players in the global science market—that’s a given—but that those nations will become America’s superiors, rather than its peers.

Citing everything from “nerd” stigma to insufficient pay, representatives have taken the floor at multiple Congressional hearings to bemoan what they say is a recent downward trend in the number science PhDs awarded in the US. Adding to the alarm is the fact that more foreign students are staying home, either by choice or because of difficulty obtaining a visa in post-9/11 America.

Despite this apprehension, some observers have concluded that the situation may not be as dire as politicans have suggested. In fact, some researchers closely studying the American science pipeline actually see much to be confident about.

The members of the National Academies disavowed their original numbers in February, adopting less foreboding data that provides new figures for Chinese or American engineers. The army of 600,000 Chinese was replaced with “about 350,000 engineers, computer scientists and information technologists with four-year degrees,” while the reported number of American engineers doubled to 140,000.

The new numbers come from a December 2005 report out of Duke University, compiled by Vivek Wadhwa and Gary Gereffi. Wadhwa is a lifelong tech entrepreneur who has been outsourcing projects to the developing world since the early 1990s, and is now an “executive-in-residence” at Duke’s engineering school. Gereffi is director of Duke’s Center on Globalization, Governance and Competitiveness.

Wadhwa and Gereffi found that the oft-quoted numbers didn’t filter for expertise. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Association of Software and Service Companies and the Chinese Ministry of Education, they determined that many of the Chinese and Indian degrees are “sub-baccalaureate,” awarded to the “equivalent of motor mechanics and industrial technicians.” They also found that in 2004, the United States actually awarded 137,437 engineering, computer science and IT bachelor’s degrees, versus China’s 351,537, and India’s 112,000. Per capita, the report adds, that’s 468 per million citizens in the US, versus 271 and 104 per million in China and India, respectively.

A 2005 McKinsey and Company Global Institute labor study found that a higher percentage of engineers in lower profile nations like Poland, Hungary and Malaysia are competitive in the global job market compared to Chinese and Indian engineers. Only about 10 percent of China’s engineers and 25 percent of India’s are qualified worldwide.

Still, as China and India continue to develop their universities at breakneck speed, “it’s inevitable,” Wadhwa said, that they will eventually produce many more qualified scientists and engineers than the US.

But, Wadhwa points out, China has more dentists too.

Concerns that America’s science pipeline is rapidly drying up may be unfounded as well.
Eric Iversen, manager for outreach at the American Society for Engineering Education calls the oft-quoted numbers “the touchstone for the hysteria argument,” though he admits that science research and education have gained valuable attention from all the hoopla.

“There’s political utility in [those numbers],” he said, “Both the Democrats and Republicans want to say, ‘We’re the ones that ensured the future by passing the American Competitiveness Initiative.’”

Iversen notes that the number of bachelors degrees awarded in engineering has increased “disproportionately” compared to all degrees between 1999 and 2004, from 62,000 to 73,000.

John Tsapogas, a senior analyst in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resource Studies, points to the number of science and engineering degrees awarded by American colleges, which rose in both 2003 and 2004, saying this could be the beginning of a rebound. He attributes an NSF-reported 20% decline in science and engineering doctorates awarded to US citizens or permanent residents between 1995 and 2004 a hot tech-labor market; during those years, tech-savvy minds ran from the classroom to the boardroom.

“A lot of the decrease [in doctoral program enrollment] happened in the 1980s and 1990s, during phenomenal job growth,” Tsapogas said. “When unemployment goes up, so do doctorates.”

Another boon to American science are newly-lax visa protocols, which have increased the numbers of foreign students. The number of graduate applications from China declined 53% from 2002 to 2004, while applications from India declined 32%. But in 2005, Chinese applications were up 21%—climbing back to 2003 levels—and Indian applications were up 23, only 15% below the 2002 level. Furthermore, the Senate recently approved immigration provisions to award automatic green cards to foreign students with advanced and/or engineering degrees.

“I think our numbers will continue to rise,” Tsapogas said. “Unless there’s another 9/11.”

Tsapogas believes that even as other countries develop their own education systems, America will continue to maintain its share of foreign students. He also predicts that the numbers from China and India will largely recover, and students from nations in parts of Africa and Latin America will arrive in larger numbers as their nations develop.

Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author of The World is Flat, a 500-page treatise on globalization, wrote that there’s “something about [America’s] free society and free market that still attracts people like no other.”

In response to those who worry about China, Friedman added, “our Chinese will still beat their Chinese.”

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Originally published June 28, 2006

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