Skills for a competitive edge

Posted on November 22, 2005

WASHINGTON — To stem the flood of jobs leaving America for other countries, schools in the United States need to re-emphasize math and science courses, according to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences. "My hope is that the president will become interested and make this the subject of his State of the Union address and the focus of his remaining three-year term in office," U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said. "So, we are thinking big." The report was commissioned in the spring by Sen. Alexander, former University of Tennessee president and U.S. education secretary, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. White House spokesman Blair Jones said the administration has received the report. He said President Bush’s science advisers are reviewing it and consulting with members of the report’s panel. "The president appreciates Senator Alexander’s continued leadership on education and global competitiveness," Mr. Jones said. The report came from a 20-member panel, including three Nobel Prize winners, that made 20 suggestions, including: Recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers each year by providing college scholarships in math, science and engineering in exchange for a five-year commitment to teach in public schools. Increasing federal investment in math and science research by 10 percent a year over the next seven years. Creating an advanced research projects agency in the Department of Energy to support "out-of-the box, transformational" energy research by universities, industry and government laboratories. Annually provide $500,000 research grants to the nation’s brightest young researchers. Other recommendations are for more scholarships, tax credits and incentives to employers and companies in the science and technology sector and oneyear visa extensions for foreign students earning engineering or science doctorates so they can find work in the United States. The proposal has a $9.3 billion price tag for its first year. Sen. Alexander said the programs need to be implemented at one time and not piecemeal if they are to succeed. "If all we do is spend our money on war, welfare, Social Security and debt, we won’t have a country to pursue our aspirations," Sen. Alexander said. "All of those other things are problems to solve. This is a way you solve the problems. More brain power equals better jobs." But Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said that is a lot of money for one initiative when the entire federal education budget is about $37 billion. "You are increasing that budget substantially for just one area, and I am sure you are duplicating existing programs," Mr. Schatz said. "There have been science and math initiatives for years, and the U.S. is still behind the curve. I don’t think it is a matter of money." Norman Augustine led the committee that wrote the report and is retired chairman of Lockheed Martin. He said Americans are finding themselves in competition for jobs with the rest of the post-Cold War world in which billions of new, educated capitalists are looking for work. He said the trend is beginning to affect the high-end technology sector, the source of 85 percent of annual measured growth in U.S. per-capita income. SLIPPING STUDENT NUMBERS The number of engineering majors at public colleges in the Volunteer State has slipped over the last three years from 9,070 to 8,482, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. But the number of biology, physical science and mathematics majors has increased slightly, according to THEC data. The number of engineering graduates from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has fallen within the last decade from about 80 to 48 last spring, according to university data. The number of chemistry and biology graduates has wavered but not changed significantly in that time period, producing 26 chemistry graduates and 69 biology graduates last fall, figures show. Dr. John Friedl, provost at UTC, said the numbers reflect a national trend in students choosing professional majors such as business, teaching and nursing. "Students are choosing majors that are going to immediately prepare them for high-paying jobs," said Dr. Friedl, the campus’ chief academic officer. "They are choosing majors where there’s a clear definition of a career track." The university has begun to send recruiters from the College of Engineering and Computer Science to area high schools to encourage students to take the math and science classes necessary to be ready to major in engineering, Dr. Friedl said. UTC junior Lindsey McNutt, a biology major from Memphis, said she wished that her high school teachers had prepared her better for the workload in college science classes. "I thought everything was going to be easy like high school," Ms. McNutt, 20, said. "Teachers need to enforce that college is hard work." At the K-12 level, the Hamilton County Schools system is in the last year of a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to improve math and science instruction for students. Dr. Barbara Fulmer, head of Hamilton County’s program, said the money went to professional development for teachers and toward technology for classrooms. "If a student is interested in a subject and continues through his or her school career with courses, chances are he will continue that when he is looking for a career," Dr. Fulmer said. Brian Ferguson, CEO of Kingsport, Tenn.-based, Eastman Chemical Co., said his company has seen a one-third drop at colleges where it recruits in the percentage of students preparing to be engineers. Sen. Alexander said creating and keeping jobs at home is second only to the war on terrorism among problems Americans will face during the next decade. "People are busy fighting that, so I decided to focus on the other," he said. "We are worried that India, China and other countries around the world are going to increase their brain power at the expense of our standard of living." MATH AND SCIENCE Findings in a National Academy of Science report commissioned by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to look at the condition of science, math and engineering education and professions in the United States: A company can hire 11 engineers in India for the cost of hiring one in the United States. Thirty-eight percent of scientists and engineers in America holding doctorates were born abroad. Chemical companies closed 70 facilities in the United States in 2004 and have tagged 40 more for shutdown. Of 120 chemical plants being built around the world with price tags of $1 billion or more, one is in the United States and 50 are in China. In 1997 China had fewer than 50 research centers managed by multinational corporations. By 2004 there were more than 600. The United States’ share of global high-tech exports has fallen from 30 percent to 17 percent in two decades. In a recent international test involving mathematical understanding, U.S. students finished in 27th place among the nations participating. About two-thirds of the students studying chemistry and physics in U.S. high schools are taught by teachers with no major or certificate in the subject. In 2003 foreign students earned 59 percent of the engineering doctorates awarded in U.S. universities. In 2003 three American companies were among the top 10 recipients of patents granted by the U.S. Patent Office. In 2001 U.S. industry spent more on litigation and related costs than on research and development. Source: "Rising above the Gathering Storm" by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine