The Coming Tech Gap Threatens U.S. Economy

Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers’ controversial view that “innate” gender differences may mean too few female scientists and engineers in the U.S. obscures a larger problem: too few American scientists or engineers of any gender. Our lead in technology could vanish, given that so few Americans study engineering, math and science on our campuses-beyond the many foreign students taking such majors, who may or may not stay here to help us out.

One such foreign helper has been Intel founder Andrew S. Grove, who came here after the Soviet repression in Hungary. Mr. Grove has warned of future Asian challenges in information technology by using one striking comparison: In the U.S., 5 percent of college students major in engineering or science, but about 30 to 40 percent of Asian students do. All nine members of China’s ruling Politburo have engineering degrees.

Too few tech hands here meant big personnel shortages during the late-1990’s dot-com boom. Just before the bubble burst in 2000, even Washington’s emergency doubling of H 1-B visas for specialized foreign workers to 195,000 that year couldn’t fill our tech gap.

This shortage led to a recent I.B.M. invention from necessity, after customers noted growing gaps between the I.T. they managed and workers able to run it. Enter Big Blue’s advances in autonomous computing, where machines spot, then correct, faulty entries. With such ingenuities, our tech lead holds, and so I.B.M.’s first supercomputer is 10 times faster than Japan’s NEC Earth Simulator. But where are the U.S. citizens to create and operate such marvels? A 2001 survey by the National Assessment of Education Progress found that 82 percent of our high-school seniors lacked science proficiency. “Our hopes for a strong 21st century are dimming,” warned Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige.

And it’s not just Asian upstarts like China and India that are threatening our tech lead. Old Europe has taken giant steps, too. The number of patents filed with the European Union increased by 75 percent from 1995 to 2000. In Belgium, Louvain University’s engineering school recently spun off almost 50 companies. In 2001, two Louvain students beat both I.B.M. and Japan’s N.T.T. to develop an encryption technology for the … U.S. National Security Agency (which, curiously, is the world’s biggest employer of mathematicians).

Two years ago, Mr. Grove noted that China’s 476,000 graduate degrees in science in 2002 equaled all of our graduate degrees that year. Mr. Grove also said that he didn’t see the “hunger” here which drove him to found the world’s leader in semiconductors.

Two decades after the federal government released its Nation at Risk report about the state of education, SAT scores have barely risen and science proficiencies are on the decline. Despite its wise focus on disadvantaged children, President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act remains woefully underfunded.

More than a half-century has passed since Rudolph Flesch’s surprise 1951 best-seller about the phonics method of reading instruction, Why Johnny Can’t Read. Six years later, the Soviet Union took the lead in the space race by launching Sputnik, inspiring a major hike in federal spending for science teaching. For a while, Washington’s investment paid off. Rising science scores through 1968 reflected the increased resources, as well as Great Society landmarks like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. But then Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” yielded to the war in Vietnam. SAT scores fell, inner-city and rural schools became more obsolete and more crowded, and too many low-income households fell apart.

Just before A Nation at Risk appeared in 1983, Flesch’s popular sequel would be plaintively titled Why Johnny Still Can’t Read.

Today, when one in four adults lacks reading proficiency, one thing seems likely: Without dramatic changes in the schools that should be educating future engineers, mathematicians and scientists, we near the grim day when, too often, Johnny may never read.

Our poor job of educating tech professionals produced a brief travesty in 2000, when a shortage of math and science teachers for New York’s public schools led to 50 being flown in from Austria to plug the gap. “Why are we importing mathematicians and scientists when we have them here?” wondered a teacher quoted in a television report on the Summer Schools Academy of New York City, where ambitious public-school students spend their vacations taking advanced math and science courses. As the teacher asked his question, the television camera panned around the classroom to reveal that virtually all his students seemed to be Asian-Americans.

Many of those students may have been recent arrivals, driven here by the “hunger” that drove Andrew Grove. But until more black, Latino and white faces, male or female, appear in such advanced courses, we’ll keep importing skilled tech workers and entrepreneurs from Europe, India or that very populous dictatorship ruled by nine commissars with engineering degrees.

The Coming Tech Gap Threatens U.S. Economy