The fears have been growing for years. US research and development is falling off. Other countries are growing more competitive. American schools are turning out too few scientists and engineers. Now the clouds on the horizon may be converging into something like a perfect storm, according to a troubling report released last week by the American Electronics Association.
The report argues that the US standing in technology is slipping, and that the nation is in danger of losing its advantage in fields it has long dominated.
“We are still in the lead, but it is a precarious one,” the association’s researchers warn in the conclusion to their report. “Already other countries are challenging us in key technology arenas. If we don’t act now to maintain our competitive edge, we should not be surprised if the next wave of breakthrough technologies is created abroad.”
While many of the trends they cite are familiar, at least one is new and ominous: a migration of foreign science and engineering talent from the United States to other countries, in Europe and elsewhere.
Last year, foreign applications to US graduate engineering programs dropped 36 percent, partly because of opportunities elsewhere and partly because of disenchantment with the nation’s more restrictive immigration policies. This is happening at a time when 20 percent of US scientists and engineers are foreign-born, and more than half of doctoral engineering and mathematics degrees go to foreign nationals who support these academic programs financially.
“If we had the current restrictions back in the 1950s, Andy Grove might not have gotten into this country,” William T. Archey, president of the electronics association, said in an interview, referring to the Intel chairman who emigrated from Hungary. “How are we going to be innovative if we’re not letting these people in and we’re not graduating any engineers or scientists?”
In some ways, the United States has fallen victim to its success in importing economic reform worldwide, Archey said.
“We’ve been trying to get these countries to adopt free markets for 50 years, and now they have,” he noted. “And even if we do everything right now, we’re going to face some serious problems.”
The association’s report spells out the nature of those problems: China now graduates four times as many engineers as the United States, while the European Union countries graduate three times as many. At the same time, the US lead is slipping in technology patents and science and engineering doctoral degrees. Emerging nations are also becoming adept at capitalizing on technologies invented in the developed world.
Promoting federal funding for basic research is one of the report’s recommendations, along with making a research and development tax credit permanent. It also calls for lower barriers for skilled immigrants, stronger global enforcement of intellectual property protection, dramatic improvements in the US educational system, and government incentives for companies to invest in broadband and cellular deployment.