Monday, July 11, 2005

U.S. losing lead in science and engineering?

I'm trying to remember if there has ever been a time in the last 25 years when there wasn't some study or article warning about the shortage or lack of US engineering graduates and the dire consequences of this for the US economy. In this case, the article linked from the title is from Reuters and the information source is a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which sounds like a government agency, but is really a private organization. Right away I'm suspicious, for why would people name an organization that way unless they wanted to convey the false impression that they are a government agency? Do they take the same approach with their studies? However, to be fair, my cursory perusal of their web site did not leave any impressions of something underhanded; they seem like a serious organization with a number of high-level researchers. So, I'll leave the issue of their name as a minor point; perhaps someone reading this knows more (assuming anyone is, of course)?

For example, the author of the study holds a named Chair in the Harvard Economics Department. The report would cost $5, so of course I just read the Reuters article and not the full report. I assume Reuters just grabbed some bullet points from its executive summary or press release, anyway (the article reads that way). The gist is that, despite its dominance of engineering and high technology industry and research for the last 50 years, the United States' share of world engineering production is shrinking, and, urgent action is needed to ensure that this does "not undermine America's global economic leadership".

Note that this is talking about all engineering graduates, not just CS, and so it is comparing a currently stable US output with rising outputs in other countries. This is not surprising, considering that:

The study said deteriorating opportunities and comparative wages for young science and engineering graduates has discouraged U.S. students from entering these fields, but not those born in other countries.
So, what is to be done? Produce more graduates to compete for fewer opportunities and lower wages? It doesn't seem that the report suggests this action; at least, the Reuters article doesn't mention it, and the wording is strange, in that the action urged above is to prevent the decreasing share from undermining US economic leadership, not to prevent the share itself from decreasing. The report's abstract has the following closing sentence:
To ease the adjustment to a less dominant position in science and engineering, the US will have to develop new labor market and R&D policies that build on existing strengths and develop new ways of benefitting from scientific and technological advances in other countries.
This seems purposefully vague. Is there something more concrete in the report? Is this code for something that would be obvious to an economist, such as increasing immigration quotas? Anyone want to know badly enough to spend $5 to find out?

Personally, I am skeptical that this will be as much of a crisis as is advertised. Of course the number of engineering graduates in China, for example, will increase greatly in the years to come, and so of course the US share of graduates will decrease. However, the cost of living in major Chinese cities already rivals or exceeds comparable US cities. For example, new condos in the outskirts of Guangzhou can cost well over US$100,000. Chinese engineering graduates aren't stupid. They didn't work like crazy to beat incredible odds to get their degrees to live in third world conditions someplace in the boondocks -- they want comfortable lives in the big cities. I don't imagine that the situation is all that different in India. So, the cost advantage of offshoring will be transitory: enough to jump start high-tech industries in developing countries, but insufficient to do permanent damage to the US engineering profession.

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  1. Hello Michael, I am from India, have stayed in the US for 7-8 months cumulatively.. where i worked with my US RnD colleagues. all atleast 15 -40 years senior to me .. I have been to 3-4 American univs.. during this time.. and these are my views.

    First the RnD field.. I can say for sure.. US univs (Higher education, Grants, Infrastructure, faculty) outnumber Indian counterprts by 30 : 1 .. one of the main reasons why you see so many Indian students in your colleges.. we might have about 10-12 top Graduate Engg colleges (again using the above benchmarks) around the country for which 12-14 million students aspire. The Post Graduate Scenario is even worse.. with 5-6 colleges having International Repute.. In these fields.. we are decades behind.. when you talk about core research, Intellectual Property.. and its only recently that the government has shrugged its apathy and begun to take note.. but equally handful are the researchers that have the means, the background and the support to pursue research in this country.. Bringing it to China or the US's present level will take us atleast 20 more years.. The Indian corporate, esp. which Americans are so enthusiastic about.. the silicon valley ( I remember John Kerry's Presidential speech calling for each city in the US. to be "wired" like Bangalore . you should be in Bangalore to know how the comment is utterly hilarious) , they dont even have a future road map for independant reserch, technology driven projects for this country , Indian software/engineering graduates are geared up for service/ test/ maintenance/c upgrade based worker like jobs.. definitely not for intellectual development.. Most of Our Scientic and Tech companies are mere low tech service providers.. working for a living, competing against each other.. for lower and lower prices.. Its really not a competition with the US worker.. he doesnt even come into the picture.. its against each other.. its not 1 US worker against 3.. its maybe 5 or more.. with a 15 hour Monday to Saturday work cycle .. to suit Across atlantic deadlines.. thats the labor market here.. its difficult for the US labor strategists to even think of competing on price and time.. and why blame the industries.. arent they raking the profits? its the companies, who shout and scream against Global outsourcing at your public forums.. but twist the arms of the US govt. behind their back..for their interests

    Lastly the cost aspect is however still very low as compared to the US. though in comparative terms (earning - expenditure) our cities can earn the reputation of the worst blood suckers..

    I know that the RnD situ out there looks bleak.. and understandably so, there is a cardinal flaw in your basic education system.., though its well geared and sound w.r.t. the US's perspective , but w.r.t mathematcial and analytical abilities., globally what i can say is that a normal 10th standard student in the US cant even pass the 8th grade here .. or so I have read is the belief of educationists here.. some of my American project mates living here in Bangalore would say the same..

    You have to slog for 3 years .. 14 hours a day to get a Engg. seat at the Indian Institutes of Technology here.. thats the competitiveness we are talking about.. unfortunately for Indian science and fortunately for the US infrastructure.. 70% of the top students contibute to their fields for your country.. they have been doing that for the last 50 years, and at present, I dont see that influx abating in the recent years to come..

    Phew ! that was a long comment! First timer here !! will visit more.. !

  2. Thanks for visiting, and I hope you won't regret reading it in the future. I agree that R&D is another story, though eventually nations like India and China will catch up with that. I was mostly commenting on typical engineering jobs. The 20-year time span you mention is what I'm concerned about, and probably more, since that's a big chunk of current engineering students' careers.