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America's High-Tech STEM Crisis

Arthur Herman

America is in a race for high-tech supremacy with China. The question is, whether we will have enough future engineers and scientists to secure our lead in that race; or whether, for the first time, leadership in advanced technologies will pass to a leading geopolitical and economic competitor.

The issue isn’t whether our colleges and universities are training students and Ph.D’s in computer science and engineering and the physical sciences. It’s whether enough of them are American students. In fact, if many of those departments in our leading institutions of higher learning had to rely on American students alone for enrollments, they would probably have to shut their doors.

Experts have complained for decades that Americans don’t excel enough in the so-called STEM (i.e. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. But leading trends in our higher education suggest that the U.S. is fast approaching a STEM crisis like no other—-one that systematically benefits foreign countries and companies, at the expense of our own. A future shortfall in Americans trained in science and engineering bodes ills not only for our economic well-being, but for our national security as well. This is because so many current and future defense systems will depend on technologies in which America still leads in development and innovation, such as cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum research, and even nanotechnology—but where competitors are pushing hard to overtake us and dominate the high-tech future.

The leading competitor is China, whose political leadership understands only too well how important STEM leadership is for global leadership. The World Economic Forum calculates that China had at least 4.7 million recent STEM grads as of 2016; India had 2.6 million as of 2017; the U.S. pulls in at third at 568,000. That puts us about equal with India for STEM grads per population (1:516 ratio for Indians and 1:573 for Americans); but well behind China’s 1:293 ratio.

China has also mastered the science of sending their students to foreign universities to build their knowledge base in crucial STEM areas, who then head back to China to become foot soldiers in the battle for high-tech supremacy. And a key training ground for those students are America’s best colleges and universities.

Last year, for example, 62 percent of all international students in US colleges and universities were in science and engineering fields. Almost seventy percent of those were from either India or China.

Meanwhile, it’s true that STEM grads are increasing as a percentage of American university and college grads. But a dwindling number of those students are Americans themselves. Even though the number of foreign students matriculating at American universities dipped slightly in the fall of 2017 by seven percent, the proportion of foreign students studying STEM subjects in the U.S. has doubled in the last thirty years. The Kauffman Foundation estimates that given current trends international students will make up full half of all STEM Ph.D’s by 2020. Indeed, without international students, graduate programs in STEM subjects in many schools couldn’t survive.

How bad is the shortage of American students? According to the non-partisan National Foundation for American Policy, in 2017 foreign nationals accounted for 81% of electrical engineering majors and grad students in this country. Foreign students make up three quarters of the majors and grad students in industrial engineering; 62% in mechanical engineering; 55%, or more than half, of those studying materials and metallurgic engineering.

As for computer science, the vital crucible for America’s future in areas such as cyber and AI, American students make up barely 21% of the student body.

So what’s the answer? Clearly it isn’t removing foreign nationals from these programs—although the State Department has started limiting visas for Chinese students in key areas like aerospace, robotics, and additive manufacturing. It’s really about getting more Americans into the STEM game, starting with scholarships in areas that are critical to our national and economic security, and much more.

Fortunately there is a precedent. Sixty-one years ago the Soviet launching of Sputnik forced a major reorientation of America’s entire education priorities; it spurred Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act that aimed to “strengthen the national defense and to encourage and assist in the expansion and improvement of educational programs to meet critical national needs.” That act gave STEM in America a major boost, as Americans focused on winning the space race in every classroom and college campus.

We are fast approaching another Sputnik moment, we can’t afford to ignore. Our national security, as well as economic security, depending on addressing it. We need major high-tech companies like Google and Microsoft; leading universities and colleges; the White House, the Department of Education and the Department of Defense; to come together to craft a high-tech STEM education strategy that can lead us forward to the future. Because when Sputnik comes this time, in the form of a Chinese universal quantum computer able to breach our public encryption systems, or Chinese companies setting the technical standards for 5G networks for the rest of the world, it will be too late.

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