Copyright The San Jose Mercury News
April 7, 2006
A recent report from Duke University that critiques
the supposed gap between the number of American
science and engineering (S&E) graduates and those of
merging economies — especially China’s — has led to
false reassurance that the U.S. lead in science and
technology is not under threat from China. It would be
a grave mistake to drop our concerns about China’s
First, the Duke report simply claimed that China’s
true number of science and engineering bachelor
degrees was 351,000, rather than the widely reported
600,000. Coupling this with an upward adjustment for
American graduates still left China producing 214,000
more such degrees than the United States.
Moreover, undergraduates are only part of the concern.
China’s production of those with doctorates has
increased rapidly. By 2003, China’s homegrown science
and engineering doctorates numbered almost half of the
Chinese were also earning large numbers of doctorates
abroad. In 2001, the number of Chinese S&E doctorates
earned in Japan, the United Kingdom and the United
States equaled 72 percent of the total of S&E
doctorates earned by American citizens and permanent
Since 1975, China has increased its global share of
S&E doctorates from zero (courtesy of the Cultural
Revolution) to 11 percent, not counting doctorates
earned overseas. During the same three decades, the
U.S. global share has fallen from half to roughly 22
More worrisome than the aggregate numbers is American
universities’ reliance on foreigners who earn
doctorates. In engineering, foreigners account for
over half of America’s doctorates, and in computer
science just under half.
If foreign-born holders of doctorates continued to
stay in the United States, we wouldn’t have to worry.
Unfortunately, there are many signs that it is
becoming much harder to retain them.
One need only look at the flow from Taiwan, one of the
former main sources of American S&E doctoral degrees,
to see what could happen. Up until 1994, Taiwanese
earned more science and engineering doctorates in the
United States than members of any other foreign
nationality. By 2000, their numbers had plummeted
because economic and educational opportunities at home
were more appealing.
The Taiwanese didn’t just stop coming to America. They
also began to leave. As Taiwan’s tech sector boomed in
the 1990s, huge numbers of Taiwanese technologists
(estimates range as high as 100,000) left America for
home and took their technical skills with them.
Our two current biggest foreign sources of
technologists, China and India, appear to be following
Taiwan’s path. China has begun to lure back large
numbers of technologists. China’s central and local
governments offer free office space and other benefits
to attract technologists home. These inducements are
working. A 2005 survey of the Chinese American
Semiconductor Professionals Association’s members
showed that the vast majority regard China as the most
likely future work destination, and they rated
Shanghai higher than even Silicon Valley on career
potential. India’s recruitment efforts have also
started to bear fruit.
The challenge is not simply keeping up the numbers of
technologists in America. China by many measures has
improved its technological capabilities. On the
Georgia Institute of Technology’s Index of
Technological Capability, China has more than doubled
its index score over the past decade. China now ranks
fourth behind the United States, Japan and Germany.
This rapid ascent is not surprising given China’s
increasing investments. China’s research and
development spending as a percentage of gross domestic
product has tripled to 1.3 percent in the last decade,
even while its GDP has ballooned. Few emerging
economies spend even 1 percent of their GDP on
U.S. patents invented in China are also on the rise.
Information-technology patents from corporations’
Chinese technologists have risen from 134 in 1997-2001
to 482 during 2002-04. As a first step to meet this
challenge, we should increase federal spending on
basic and exploratory research. Our R&D spending has
been flat at 2.6 percent of GDP for four decades, but
the share of federal spending has declined from
two-thirds to one-quarter.
Given that corporations now de-emphasize basic
scientific research, the federal government should
further support the basic research that could maintain
our lead at the cutting edge of technology.
Increased federal funding would also address the issue
of the falling share of investment in certain
disciplines. With spending flat, the rising share
commanded by biomedicine has meant a falling share
spent on engineering and physics.
Federal support may also play a direct role in
increasing interest in pursuing a science education.
Since the 1950s, the number of undergraduate S&E
majors in America has risen and fallen in line with
federal research funding, as Professor Henry Rowen of
Stanford University has pointed out.
Before meeting China’s challenge, we first must
recognize it. Complacency in reaction to “good” news
that China is producing fewer S&E graduates than
commonly thought is not the answer.
Douglas B. Fuller is a postdoctoral fellow at the
Stanford Project on Regions of Innovation and
Entrepreneurship (SPRIE) at Shorenstein APARC.
Douglas B. Fuller – San Jose Mercury News
Copyright The San Jose Mercury News