Friday, March 31, 2006

Science Gap or Feynman Gap

We’ve all read the grim statistics. In the US only 5% of college students graduate with degrees in engineering compared to 19% in Japan, 20% in Germany and 39% in China. In “Education Reform Needed Now!,” (3/13/06) I wrote that the greatest threat to American competitiveness is the inadequate education of too many Americans. To mention just one issue, the European Union now graduates 50 percent more engineers and scientists than the US, and Asia has recently passed us by. In 2004, China graduated 600,000 engineers and India 350,000 as against 70,000 in the United States, according to the National Scientific Foundation (NSF).

In a letter to President Bush, Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wrote that “one-third of all jobs in the US require competency in science or technology – yet only 17 percent of our college graduates are earning degrees in technical fields.” President Jackson is calling for a new “space race” aimed at energy security as a mechanism to renew American strength in science and engineering.

While I remain concerned about the woeful lack of science literacy among the general population, new data from Duke University show that the graduate science gap is largely false. The Duke researchers found that the Chinese and Indian figures are misleading as they include mechanics, technicians and graduates with two year degrees in their engineer totals. And the American figures excluded computer science graduates. Adjusted for these differences, the U.S. engineering degrees jump to 137,000 compared to 352,000 in China and 112,000 in India.

More importantly, China has four times the population and India has three times compared to the US. Those countries need more technical workers to keep their economies and societies functioning. Per million people, the United States graduates 757 engineering and technical bachelor degrees compared to 497 Chinese and 199 Indian degrees. We still have a comfortable lead.

Furthermore, the US population of science and engineering (S&E) students is growing again after a decline in the 1990s. In 2004, American colleges and universities awarded a record 233,492 undergraduate S&E degrees, reports the National Science Foundation. That was up 38 percent since 1990. Computer science degrees have doubled since 1990, while engineering degrees in 2004 are roughly the same as in 1990.

Graduate S&E enrollments exceeded 327,000 in 2003, another record. They've jumped 22 percent since their recent low in 1998. Computer science graduate students have increased 60 percent from their low point in 1995, and engineering graduate students are up 27 percent since their low in 1998. And after years of decline, native-born Americans and permanent residents in S&E graduate programs have increased 13 percent since 2000.

These increases are being driven by demand that is driving up salaries. From 1993 to 2003, the median salary of engineers with bachelor's degrees and one to five years' experience rose 34 percent (after inflation) to $58,000 according to the NSF. By contrast, the average increase for non S&E college graduates and one to five years' experience was only 7.7 percent to $37,000. These are encouraging signs.

I do think we should encourage more kids to make a career in science. Sometimes it is a tough sell. As the famous physicist Richard Feynman said “Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it.” For quite a while our yearly graduates with doctorates in biology and physics have been flat, with roughly 5900 biology PhDs and 3400 physics PhDs. And since a scientist like Feynman or Einstein is one in a thousand, we need many more thousands to make the Nobel-class scientists that have helped to create our spectacular economy.

But a country's capacity for scientific and commercial innovation does not correlate only with its number of scientists and engineers. Hard work, imagination and business practices also matter. Here, the United States has some significant advantages: widespread ambition; openness to new ideas, especially from the young; acceptance of skilled immigrants; strong connections between universities and businesses; and well-funded venture capitalists. (Robert Samuelson, “A Phony Science Gap?” Washington Post, 2/22/06)


Anonymous Smitty said...

We're working on basic English

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of science, Bill, are we in for global warming? In 1975, the media was reporting the coming ice age. No fooling. Last night on the History channel, the report indicated the Defense Department is preparing for global cooling. The reporter seemed to say that
greenhouse gases will either cause glaciers to melt, or will cause more glaciers, take your pick. Huh?


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