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Why We're Behind in Technology : U.S. Education Isn't Producing World-Class Competitors

March 15, 1987|SIMON RAMO | Dr. Simon Ramo, director emeritus and co-founder of TRW, has just completed a two-year term as chairman of the Education and Human Resources Committee of the National Science Board.

Every nation now perceives its strength to be vitally dependent on its technology. This is creating an international contest for technological superiority, a world technology Olympics. By winning many competitive events a country can be master of its fate. To lose too often can be catastrophic.

For decades the United States swept the technology Olympics, but recently we have been slipping badly. American producers have been bested in consumer electronics, cameras, automobiles and many machinery fields. The U.S. share of world trade in high-technology products has dropped from 30% in the 1960s to less than 20% in the 1980s. America's 1980 trade surplus of $17 billion turned into a deficit that totaled $169.8 billion in 1986. Twenty years ago the U.S. Patent Office's grants to foreigners were barely noticeable. Now foreign inventors are obtaining almost half of American patents.

We have gone from world leadership in annual improvement in productivity (output per worker hour), the key to high living standards, to the bottom of the list. During the 1970s, the productivity increases in France and West Germany were twice ours--Japan's three times. In the middle 1960s we ranked first in the world in capital investment per capita. By the middle 1970s we had slipped to sixth place. U.S. investment in new non-defense technological facilities as a percent of GNP is now less than that of any other developed nation.

The situation cannot improve soon because America turns out only seven engineers for each 1,000 college graduates. For Japan the figure is 40. The Soviet Union now graduates five times as many engineers as does the United States. The fraction of scientists and engineers in our labor force has declined in the last two decades while that ratio has doubled in both Japan and Germany.

The rate of producing Ph.D.s in engineering is an excellent indicator of future technological strength. In an ever more technological society this number should rise steadily. But American universities now award only about 2,500 doctoral degrees in engineering annually compared with the figure of more than 3,000 a decade earlier, and foreign students now are obtaining almost half of these doctorates. In the last decade U.S. corporations with operations abroad have almost doubled the amount of research and development that they have conducted in foreign countries. To remain competitive, American industry must expand in certain critical fields, such as computers, while our universities are becoming short of professors and graduates in these promising areas.

The future of America's technological stature appears even worse as we look back along the pipeline to basic education in science and math. Our grade school students typically spend only one hour on science and four hours on arithmetic every week. Only about 100,000 U.S. high school students study calculus, and for only a part of a year. Five million Soviet high school students receive a full two years. Half of those teaching mathematics in our nation's high schools do not possess the minimum requirements and hold only temporary certificates. More than half of all our high school graduates have not had even one year of science. Of 25,000 high schools in the United States, only 7,000 offer a physics course. In the last decade shortages of teachers and funds have forced many high schools to delete science laboratories.

How could the United States have moved so quickly from preeminence in technology to such diminished future prospects? There is plenty of blame to go around. The parents of American school children, for example, spent billions of dollars to buy their children computer games (useful for entertainment and developing quick eye-hand coordination but not for learning either mathematics or computer science) but, every chance they had, they voted against more funds for superior schools.

Perceiving the coming crisis in the nation's critical technological strength, the federal government, through the National Science Foundation, has begun new programs to stimulate improved elementary education in science and math. Federal government leadership is important for elevating the priority of education and it is reassuring that it is at last being exerted. But the real power to influence elementary and high school education lies with lower government levels. Here the parents and the citizenry as a whole are failing to assert their political strength. They are not demanding that political bodies at state, county and city levels recognize the seriousness of the problem and attack it with vigor. In California, for instance, the nation's largest state, one whose economy is highly dependent on the quality of education of its population, the voters are willing to tolerate a lower allocation of education funds per child than the national average.

If apathy and lack of appreciation of primary and secondary education should prevail, we are headed for technology mediocrity and a lowered American standard of living.

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