Thursday, December 08, 2005

America's brain drain crisis

America's Brain Drain Crisis

Why our best scientists are disappearing, and what's really at stake

BY KATHRYN WALLACE

William kunz is a self-described computer geek. A more apt description
might be computer genius. When he was just 11, Kunz started writing
software programs, and by 14 he had created his own video game. As a
high school sophomore in Houston, Texas, he won first prize in a local
science fair for a data encryption program he wrote. In his senior
year, he took top prize in an international science and engineering
fair for designing a program to analyze and sort DNA patterns.`

Kunz went on to attend Carnegie Mellon, among the nation's
highest-ranked universities in computer science. After college he
landed a job with Oracle in Silicon Valley, writing software used by
companies around the world.

Kunz looked set to become a start in his field. Then he gave it all
up.

Today, three years later, Kunz is in his first year at Harvard
Business School. He left software engineering partly because his
earning ptoential paled next to friends who were going into law or
business. He also worried about job security, especially as more
companies move their programming overseas to lower costs. "Every time
you're asked to train someone in India, you think, Am I training my
replacement?" Kunz says.

Things are turning out very differently for another standout in
engineering. Qing-Shan Jia. A student at Tsinghua University in
Beijing, Jia shines even among his gifted cohorts at a school
sometimes called "the MIT of China". He considered applying to Harvard
for his PhD, but decided it wasn't worth it.

His university is investing heavily in cutting-edge research
facilities, and attracts an impressive roster of international
professors. "I can get a world class education here and study with
world-class scholars," Jia says.

These two snapshots illustrate part of a deeply disturbing picture.
In the disciplines underpinning our high tech economy-math,science and
engineering-America is steadily losing its global edge. The depth and
breadth of our problem is clear:

* Several of our key ageincies for scientific research and
devlopment will face a retirement crisis within the next ten years.
* Less than 6% of our high school seniors plan to pursue
engineering degrees, down 36% from a decade ago.
* In 2000, 56% of China's undergraduate degrees were in the hard
sciences;in the United States, the figure was 17%.
* China will likely produce six times the number of engineers next
year than we will graduate according to Mike Gibbons of the American
Society for Engineering Education. Japan, with half our population,
has minted twice as many in recent years.

There are many more unnerving developments, and they add up to this:
As other countries create the learning centers and jobs to hang on to
their best and brightest, the United States is losing a dependable
pipeline of talent. Moreover, we are doing remarkably little to
educate and train a next generation of scientists and engineers.

"Most Americans are unware of how much science does for this country
and what we stand to lose if we can't keep up," says Shirley Ann
Jackson, president of renssealer Polytechnic Institute and chair of
the American Association for the Advancement of Science. David
Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology and a
Nobel Laureate, puts it bluntly:"We can't hope to keep intact our
standard of living, our national security, our ay of life, if
Americans aren't competitive in science, Period."

It's a new world, and we barely seem to have noticed. Places we
associate with inexpensive low-end manufacturing are going high-tech
in a big way.

The spotlight is mainly on China nad India, for good reason. The
Chinese economy is surging, fueled by increasingly sophisticated
engineering, producing everything from automobiles to semiconductors.
India has nearly as robust an economy, powered by a cheap
English-speaking labor force who excel in software and services.

Along with these emerging giants countries like Japan, South Korea
and Singapore are also challenging America's dominance. If present
trends continue, 90% of all the world's scientists and engineers will
be living in Asia by 2010, according to Nobel laureate Richard
E.Smalley, professor of chemistry and physics at Rice University.

Who can be surprised, then, that jobs in software development and
research are migrating to places like Bangalore, India, and
Shanghai,China? "We go where the smart people are," says Howard High,
a spokesperson for Intel. "Now our business operations are two-thirds
in the U.S. and one third overseas. But that ratio will flip over the
next ten years." Joining Intel in expanding operations in Asia are
hundreds of companies, like IBM, Microsoft and General Electric. True
cheap labor is a draw. But if it wasn't highly skilled labor as well,
there'd be no brain drain from the United States.

"Other nations get it," syas Debra Stewart, president of the Council
of Graduate Schools."We got where we are by our research and universities.
Our success hasn't been lost on the rest of the world".

China, for instance, has set a national goal of turning 100
universities into world-class learning centers. It's more than an
academic exercise to the leadership in Beijing. Most of the top
ministers in China's government have degrees in science, points out
Zhong Lin Wang, professor of nano-technology at Georgia Tech and a
visiting professor at several universities in China. "That's quite a
difference from a government made up of lawyers," he says.

Already, a commitment to education is paying dividents for other
countries, at our expense. American companies and engineers were
granted 10,000 more U.S.patents than foreign companies.Now that margin
is down to 4,000, and six of the top ten companies are foreign.

Our talent pool is thinning in part because it was filled for so long
by political refugees. Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany brought us
many remarkable scientists, including Alert Einstein and Edward
Teller, and more came in later years from the former Soviet Union.
"The dirty little secret is that most of America's publishings and
prizes over the last decades were either authored or won by foreigners
who came here to work," says David Baltimore. "We're starting to see
dents in American shares because these bright people are either going
home after studying here or not coming here at all."

For now, we remain a huge magnet for international students, hosting
600,000. Yet at the graduate level, applications from China dropped
45% last year, and 28% from India.

"We can't draw people here by turning on a spigot anymore," says
Debra Stewart.

In January 2001, the Hart-Rudman Commission, tasked with finding
solutions to our major national security threats, concluded that the
failures of our math and science education and our system of research
"pose a greater threat ... than any potential conventional war."

The roots of the failure lie in primary and secondary education. The
nation that produced most of the great technological advances of the
last century now scores poorly in international science testing. A
2003 survey of math and science literacy ranked American 15-year olds
against kids from other industrialized nations. In math, our students
came in 24th out of 28 countries; in science, we were 24th out of 40
countries, tied with Latvia. This test, in conjunction with others,
indicates we start out with sufficient smarts-our fourth-graders score
well-but we beging to slide by eighth grade, and sink almost to the
bottom by high school.

Don't blame school budgets. We shell out more than $440 billion each
year on public education, and spend more per capita than any nation
save Switzerland. The problem is that too many of our high school
science and math teachers just aren't qualified. A survey in 2000
revealed that 38% of math teachers and 28% of science teachers in
grades 7-12 lacked a college major or minor in their subject area. In
schools with high proverty rates, the figures jumped to 52% of math
teachers and 32% of science teachers. "The highest predictor of
student performance boils down to teacher knowledge," says Gerald
Wheeler, executive director of the national Science Teachers
Association. To California Congressman Buck McKeon, a member of the
House COmmittee on Education and the Workforce, it comes down to this:
"How can you pass on a passion to your students if you don't know the
subject?"

Perhaps it's no surprise that, according to a 2004 Indiana University
survey,18% of college prep kids weren't taking math their senior year
of high schoool. "When I compare our high schools to what I see when
I'm travelling abroad, I'm terrified for our work-force tomorrow,"

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates told a summit of states governors
earlier this year. "Our high schools, even when they're working
exactly as designed, cannot teach our kids what they need to know
today."

Government has been culpable also by shortchanging research in the
hard sciiences. "Basic research is the fundamental underlying driver
of our high-tech economy," Jackson of RPI says. In the wake of 9/11,
Congress pledged to double the budget of the National Science
Foundation (NSF) over five years; that now looks like a pipe dream,
especially since Congress actually cut the NSF budget by $105 million
in 2005. That takes money from an agency whose extensive funding has
helped develop technologies in areas that are essential to our
competitiveness, from the Internet to nanotechnology.

The Bush Administration has also proposed cutting the fiscal 2006
budget for research cutting the fiscal 2006 budget for research and
development such key federals agencies as the national Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration and the National Institut of Standards and
Technology, the later of which acts as a liasion with industry and
researchers to apply new technology

"Funding cuts are job cuts." says Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, Republican
of Michigan and a member of the Science Committee in the House. Reduced
funding has put the squeeze on research positions, further smothering
incentives for students to go into hard science.

A weaker pipe-line is espciecially alarmning because the science and
engineering workforce is graying. For instance, the National Nuclear
Security Administration, an agency that responds to nuclear and
radiological emergencies here and abroad, will soon experience a
retirement crisis, according to the GAO, NASA, too, has an aging
staff: In just a few years, a quarter of its workforce will be
eligible to retire.

"We will see in our lifetime the foolishness of our budget choices
today," says New York Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, who is chairman
of the House Science Committee. "I see America falling to the middle
of the pack if we don't make serious changes now."

We've done it before. The Manhattan Project, the technology surge
that followed Sputnik:We've demonstrated that we can commit our selves
to daunting goals and achieve them. But we can't minimize the
challenges we're facing.

We need out-of-the-box thinking, of the sort suggested by experts in
a report released in October called "Rising Above the Gathering
Storm." A study group within the National Academy of Sciences, which
included the National Academy of engineering and the Institute of
Medicine, came up with innovative proposals. Among them are:

* Four-year scholarships for 25,000 undergraduate students who
commit to degrees in math, science or engineering, and who qualify
based on a competitive national exam;

* Four-year scholarships for 10,000 college students who commit to
being math or science teachers, and who agree to teach in a public
school for five years after graduation.

* Extended visas for foreign students who earn a math or science
PhD in the United States, giving them a year after graduation to look
for employment here. If they find jobs, work permits and permanent
residency status would be expedited.

Many experts are also urging that non-credentialed but
knowledgable people with industry experience be allowed to teach. That
experiment is already underway at High Tech High in San Diego.
Conceived by Gary Jacobs, whose father founded Qualcomm, this charter
school stresses a cutting-edge curriculum whether it's classes in bio
technology or web design. To teach these courses, the school hires
industry professionals. High Tech High also arranges internships at
robotics labs, Internet startups and university research centers.

In just five years, 750 kids have enrolled, three classes have
graduated and the vast majority of students have gone on to
college.One of the success stories is Jeff Jensen, class of 2005, who
was a decidedly apathetic student before high Tech High. He is now a
freshman at Stanford University on a partial scholarship, planning to
study chemistry or medicine.

IBM is one of the companies encouraging its workers to teach. This
past September, IBM announced a tuition-assistance plan, pledging to
pay for teacher certification as well as leave of absence for
employeeds who wish to teach in public schools.

The philanthropic arms of coporations are also getting involved. The
Siemens Foundation sponsors a yearl math, science and technology
competition, considered the Nobel Prize for high school research and a
great distiller of American talent. Honeywell spends $2 million each
year on science programs geared to middle school students, including a
hip-hop touring group that teaches physical science, and a robotics
lab program that teaches kids how to design, build and program their
own robot. "We've found that if we don't get kids excited about
science by middle school, it's too late," says Michael Holland, a
spokesperson for Honeywell.

State governments have shown that they, too, can take bold steps, as
several have done in creating public high school academies that focus
on the hard sciences.Among the first of these was the North Carolina
School of Science and Mathematics(NCSSM), opened in 1980, and its
track record explains why these academies have taken off elsewhere.
NCSSM boasts the highest SAT scores of any public school in the state.
The vast majority of its graduates have gone on to college, and a
number of them have started their own tech companies.

"The whole world is running a race," says Intel's Howard High, "only
we don't know it." No one knows whether or when the United States will
relinquish its lead in that race. Or how far back in the pack we could
ultimately fall. But the first order of business is to recognize
what's at stake-and get in the game.