American universities — once the dominant force in the information technology world — fell far down the ranks in a widely watched international computer programming contest held this week.

The University of Illinois tied for 17th place in the world finals of the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest. That’s the weakest result for the United States in the 29-year history of the competition.

This year, the contest was held in Shanghai, where a home team, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, won. Two Russian institutions, Moscow State University and St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics, came in second and third. Canada saved North America’s honor, as Ontario’s University of Waterloo took the No. 4 spot.

In one problem, contestants were asked to calculate the minimum number of cellular base stations needed for a mobile phone to be moved from one city to another with no loss of reception. Competitors were given a map with cities, roads and base stations.

Another problem challenged contestants to determine how much sunlight a Shanghai apartment management company could promise tenants on April 6, 2005. The students were provided information when the sun rises and sets on that date, as well as a drawing of the buildings and apartments.

Asian and Eastern European schools have been scoring increasingly well in the world championship. A U.S. school hasn’t won since 1997, when students at Harvey Mudd College proved best.

“After World War II, the U.S. was ahead, as all other countries were recovering from the war,” said UC Berkeley computer scientist David Patterson, the association’s president. “We had a head start and we were a leader by default. But now they have caught up with us.”

Patterson noted that, in many high-scoring countries, governments are in the vanguard of technology research. In the 1970s and 1980s, he said, the Defense Department’s research arm, DARPA, invested in academic research and supported work in industrial centers such as Xerox PARC and Bell Labs. That public/private cooperation helped develop the personal computer and the Internet.

“When there is more and more competition in the world, the U.S. government is spending less on research than before,” he said.

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