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
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
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
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. …