U.S. Engineers and the Flat Earth

Illustration: Mick Wiggins

You can hardly open a newspaper these days without seeing something about globalization, outsourcing, free trade, and economic competitiveness. Although the articles usually focus on policies and politics, many of the causes and consequences of globalization depend on technology and, hence, on engineers.

In 2005, a committee of the U.S. National Academies addressed this issue in a widely disseminated report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future , which argued that trends in high-tech manpower threatened the United States’ ability to compete in the global market­place. While the report itself is quite voluminous, the chairman of the ­committee, Norman Augustine, has ­written a shorter version, entitled Is America Falling off the Flat Earth? [available as a free download at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12021.html].

The report concludes that high-quality jobs are necessary for both individual and national prosperity and that advances in science and engineering are needed to create such jobs. A similar conclusion is reached by Thomas L. Friedman in his best­selling book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), in which he says that ”mathematics and science are the keys to innovation and power in today’s world.” The phrase ”flat Earth” has become a byword for a world in which distance ­disappears, rendering a worker in one country interchangeable with one in any other. That means engineering work will tend to migrate to countries that bother to cultivate engineering.

If we accept these conclusions, then we must ask how to get more engineers and how to make them more productive and innovative. The first question is one I’ve heard discussed endlessly through the years: Why aren’t there more of us engineers? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a good answer to this question, and in the United States the statistics are particularly discouraging. As Augustine notes, in the past two decades the numbers of engineers, mathematicians, physical scientists, and geoscientists graduating with bachelor’s degrees have declined 18 percent. As a proportion of the graduating students, the percentage decline is 40 percent. The number of engineering doctorates awarded by U.S. universities to U.S. citizens dropped by 23 percent in the past decade. Meanwhile, in the past two decades U.S. universities have increased their production of lawyers by 20 percent.

The solution to the dearth of engineers is said to lie in improving the U.S. ­elementary education system. Augustine, an IEEE Fellow and former CEO of Lockheed Martin, notes, ”It takes a lot of third graders to produce one engineer.” Yet by the time of high school ­graduation, only 15 ­percent of U.S. ­students have the necessary mathematical background even to consider ­engineering. My belief is that young ­students think engineering takes math (which they dislike), that it’s hard, and that it’s not sufficiently rewarding.

The other part of the competitiveness equation lies in our nation’s innovation ecology, which has changed in the past generation. U.S. industry continues to provide funding for the incubation and implementation of ideas, but it no longer does any significant basic research, having shifted this burden almost entirely to the universities and the government. Although a ­number of studies have shown that society gains substantial returns for investment in research, industry has become doubtful that it can capture any of those returns for itself, at least within a period consistent with investors’ expectations. As a result, industry now spends three times as much on litigation in the United States as it does on research.

In spite of the almost total dependence on government for funding engineering research, government investment in the United States has been relatively stagnant for the past two decades. The principal supporter of university research, the National Science Foundation, can fund only a small fraction of the proposals it receives.

So we engineers are largely responsible for ­creating the flat Earth, and we’re seen as the key to ­mitigating its bad effects and capitalizing on its good ones. But as Augustine says, we in the United States are in danger of falling off this flat Earth. The trends are bad and look to be almost irreversible, as the pool of engineers shrinks. Elsewhere on this flat Earth, the story is quite different.

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