It was a reality check to hear recently from so many of you who are feeling down on engineering as a career. Many of you fear that too much engineering is moving offshore and that the future of your profession in the U.S. is bleak.
The National Science Board shares your concerns, and it voices them in a recent report (www.nsf.gov/nsb/documents/2003/nsb0369/). The bottom line, says the NSB, is that the U.S. benefited from minimal competition in the global market for science and engineering talent for many years. The global competitive situation has changed, though, and international competition for top science and engineering talent is heating up.
The number of Asians earning science and engineering degrees has increased more than 50 percent in the past two decades, while the number of Americans receiving similar degrees has been stagnant. At the same time, a declining number of U.S. students are entering science and engineering, while the next decade will see an accelerating rate of retirement among scientists and engineers.
It's U.S.-centric to simply say that U.S. jobs are being exported. Research and engineering are becoming globally competitive, and the U.S. must respond—fast—to retain its leadership.
The NSB says that the federal government must devise educational programs to develop and retain American-born scientists and engineers from all demographic groups while enriching the U.S. environment by attracting the best engineering students and professionals from other countries.
Government R&D spending is a key driver of engineering growth. The IEEE-USA's Public Policy Forum (www.ieeeusa.org/forum) recently released an overview of the Bush administration's science and technology budget proposal for FY2005. The budget requests a total of $132 billion for federal R&D programs, which is a 5% increase over 2004. While $132 billion sounds impressive, the IEEE report cites less than glowing responses from senators on the House Science Committee.
Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) expressed strong disappointment in the proposed science budget, calling for increased R&D as the way to ensure that our economy will continue to create jobs over the long run. "The budget chapter on R&D includes the quotation that 'Science is a horse. Don't worship it. Feed it.' The budget does not reflect that advice. After a few years of spending at the levels proposed in this budget, science would be an emaciated, old, gray mare, unable to produce any new ideas or young scientists," he said, vowing to find a way to do better.
Democrats on the committee cited concerns about the termination of the Advanced Technology Program and cuts to the Manufacturing Extension Program, which both help support industry and create jobs, as well as major cuts to the Department of Energy's National Labs program.
On the upside, that $132 billion is funding some remarkable technology, far from "commodity" engineering work. Some of the more electronics-intensive initiatives include:
- Space-Based Radar: $408 million to continue development of a system to identify and track moving ground targets.
- Transformational Satellite Communications: $775 million for laser communications and enhanced RF capability to open up bandwidths.
- Joint Tactical Radio System: $600 million for Internet-protocol-based, ad-hoc mobile wireless networking capability to link civil and national authorities.
- Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems: $710 million for aircraft development.
The government R&D spending is particularly important at a time when private-sector spending is slowing, according to an R&D funding forecast recently released by the Battelle Institute (www.battelle.org). The report confirms the trend to outsourced R&D, whether that be outsourcing to a company's decentralized business units, to supply chain partners, or to offshore facilities.
The Battelle industry outlook suggests that after adjusting for inflation, the $181 billion to be spent by the industrial sector this year is slightly less than what was spent in 2003—the fourth straight year of declining R&D spending.
The only we way we're going to protect American jobs is to shift our focus to winning in the international R&D marketplace. We need to support research in the areas Battelle cites as new growth drivers: namely nanotechnology, biotechnology, and technologies for defense and homeland security. But to do this, we need to educate our leaders about engineering issues and priorities.
How can you have an opportunity to influence our policy makers? The goal of the Engineering Symposium (www.engineeringpolicy.org) is to allow engineers of all disciplines an opportunity influence public policy and to inform government policy makers. It will present its second annual Engineering R&D Symposium March 8-9 in Washington D.C., sponsored by the IEEE and other engineering groups. Join your peers, hear and meet top government officials working with technology policy, and make your voice heard.