From Abroad, Challenges to US Role as Top Innovator ; Ramped-Up R&D in China and India Blunts Economic Edge of US

Article excerpt

For decades, America was the preeminent destination for the world's innovators. Scientists of all kinds left their homelands to learn the ropes at top-flight US universities - and often stayed put to earn high salaries. Many countries struggled to stop this brain drain to the US.

But today, the giant sucking sound may be flowing in the other direction. Just this year, 325,000 Chinese earned engineering degrees. The US, by contrast, gave out just 60,000 - fewer than it did a decade ago. And international enrollment at US campuses has been falling.

These numbers symbolize an emerging risk that developing nations like India and China, fueled by high education and lower labor costs, could leapfrog US leadership in innovation.

But amid new calls to address a scientist "shortage," the need is not so much to match China and others numerically as to do something that may be even harder: to stay way ahead in the quality of research and the jobs it spawns.

"The jobs that exist are all going to go away," says Gerard Alphonse, who heads the US branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "What we need to do is create the new jobs that will not go away for the next 15 or 20 years."

Of course, not every American job is threatened. But innovation- intensive fields do face global competition, and success in those fields is widely seen as vital to a healthy economy with rising living standards.

If concern about a science gap sounds like a lament as old as the Russian Sputnik satellite, the backdrop today is quite different from the 1950s or even the 1980s, when Japan's economic rise caused American angst.

The reason lies in two factors: the growing number of nations with advanced skills, and a corresponding rise in the willingness of global corporations to locate research and production where profit opportunities are greatest.

"Companies are taking the latest tools and technologies to that foreign talent," says Ron Hira, an expert on outsourcing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The trick for nations like the US is to cultivate the kinds of research and related jobs that can't be easily done elsewhere.

Given the global strategies of today's corporations, some economists say there's no guarantee that the free marketplace will produce that result.

In a recent paper, Harvard University's Richard Freeman tackled the question, "Does globalization of the scientific/engineering workforce threaten US economic leadership?"

He outlines several trends that suggest the answer is yes.

* By 1999, China ranked behind only the US, Japan, and Germany in publications on four emerging technologies. By 2004, China was third and closing in on Japan in one of those fields, nano- technology. …