Did you know that America is really engaged in two major global conflicts? The more prominent of these battles is being fought in the ancient biblical lands of the Middle East. The second battle doesn't center on one geographical area. But it also is being waged against a foreign power—actually, more than one. The outcome of either of these wars will affect the future of the United States in ways that few of its citizens can fully imagine.
Have you guessed the second major conflict? It is the war that's challenging our tenuous position as a global leader in all things technical. But don't take my word for it. Instead, consider the diverse voices that are now expressing the same concern: namely, that America is losing its competitive edge in most technology markets.
Craig Barett, CEO of Intel, recently suggested that in less than a decade, Chinese universities will turn out graduate students who are on par with current U.S. graduates when it comes to their technical knowledge and abilities. China, like many other Asian (and European) countries, continues to invest heavily in the technical education of its citizens. These countries recognize that a competent knowledge base is needed to compete in any of the world's technology markets.
Other professionals agree that China may be the world's next technology leader. Brad Stone, who writes for the Science & Technology section of Newsweek, recently noted, "America ranks very low in science education and the production of new engineering graduates." He concludes that it seems inevitable that the U.S. will cede its technology leadership to Asia.
Why is the U.S. losing its technological prowess? As with any complex problem, the reasons are many and varied. Experts agree, though, that the key issue is education. Several studies have confirmed that most American high-school graduates don't have what it takes for college. A recent Manhattan Institute study, for example, found that only 32% of students in the high-school class of 2001 had the necessary skills to gain admittance to college (or to succeed once they had been admitted). A real lack of commitment and funding to America's educational system seems to be at the heart of this poor performance. This statement should come as no surprise to most students or their parents, who have witnessed continuing cuts to education in both state and federal budgets over the last several years.
But funding issues alone aren't the sole cause for America's poor performance in the technical-education arena. Many fault the overzealousness of the Department of Homeland Security. A recent article in IEEE Spectrum ("Problems Persist With U.S. Visas," Dec. 2003) notes that foreign students and scholars are steering clear of U.S. universities, thanks in large measure to severe restrictions on visas and passports. These restrictions are a direct result of America's war on terrorism. As any U.S. engineering graduate will tell you, most of the advanced degrees in engineering and science go to foreign students. Consequently, U.S. universities are now producing less engineering graduates.
Even among the U.S. students that might do well in school, few seem interested in a technical career. One reason might be the staggering unemployment rate for engineers. The IEEE-USA recently reported that the unemployment rate for electrical and electronic engineers shot up to 6.2% in 2003—a nearly 50% increase from 2002.
Education isn't the only factor affecting the ability of the U.S. to maintain its technical competence. Funding for research and development—both at the corporate and government level—is another part of the problem. Robert Lucky, a former executive and engineer at Bell Labs, recently declared that R&D at Bell Labs is dead. Similarly, on the government side, the National Science Foundation has indicated that U.S. R&D budgets have increased by only 1% between 2002 and 2003 after accounting for inflation. Since 2000, there has been little change in total U.S. R&D in real terms (inflation-adjusted dollars).
History has shown that technological advances lead to economic growth. But without a constant investment in education—real dollars, not just political slogans—and a complementary investment in R&D, very little technological innovation is possible. Can the U.S. maintain its dwindling technological edge without these critical investments? If we lose this battle and the associated high-paying jobs, how will it affect the U.S. consumer economy? Should our leaders be concerned? Please send me your thoughts at [email protected].