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The Toughest Problems Produce The Toughest Competitor

The recent successful missions of the Space Shuttles Atlantis and Discovery were also victories for the members of the team who design, construct, launch and operate America’s space shuttle, the most complicated machine humans have built. Fundamental to the team are the engineers who design the shuttle’s complex systems, foresee the myriad challenges of manned space flight and devise solutions to a host of real or imagined scenarios. Take away the engineers, and there is nothing left but an idea on paper.

In turn, the depth and breadth of America’s expertise in space and aeronautical engineering depends upon a healthy, flourishing academic system that produces the best-trained professionals in the world. However, recent indications suggest that our predominance as the world’s greatest minter of first-rate engineers is at risk. How could this happen? Richard Freeman, a professor of labor at Harvard University in Cambridge, says that America’s share of the world’s science and engineering graduates is stagnating while European and Asian, particularly Chinese universities, are steadily increasing their numbers of graduates in these critical fields.

Ronald Barr, professor of engineering at the University of Texas in Austin, and president of the American Society for Engineering Education, noted in an article for the Miami Herald last year that 44 percent of Chinese undergraduate degrees are awarded in engineering. By contrast, Barr wrote, American universities awarded less than 5 percent of its bachelors’ degrees in engineering. Barr added that while very few members of Congress have the engineering backgrounds to make informed decisions about such subjects as space exploration, health systems, the financial sector and homeland security, all nine members of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee are engineers by training.

A National Academy of Sciences study published last year corroborates Professor Barr’s concerns. It found that China turns out 600,000 new engineers yearly and India, 350,000. This, compared to 70,000 in the United States . A subsequent Duke University study criticized the way the National Academies used figures, but still determined that China and India together are turning out well over three times as many engineers annually as the United States .

It’s not the snapshot that is cause for alarm. It’s the trend. Strengthening a nation’s engineering base pays off: China has already announced plans to land on the Moon and build passenger airliners. Nor is Asia the only region where we need to pay attention. Where the United States produced more than half the world’s science and engineering doctoral graduates in 1970, European universities now exceed ours in absolute numbers. Moreover, Professor Barr reports that more than half of the engineering doctorates U.S. institutions awarded in 2004 went to foreign nationals.

How long can this trend continue until American companies flock off shore for engineering expertise? If outsourcing becomes our only path to technological excellence, will we be able to rely on foreign engineers for designs that keep our military the strongest in the world? Can we retain our world leadership in advanced technologies without a skilled pool of American expert engineers? It’s not likely.

There are several fixes, but it’s unlikely that any will work by itself. The Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of U.S. companies with more than $4.5 trillion in annual revenues and 10 million employees, along with 14 other corporate groups, wants to double the current number of American engineering graduates. Some in Congress have called for offering encouragement to American universities to graduate more engineers. These are sensible ideas. However, if we increase the supply of skilled engineers we also must ensure that demand will keep pace.

One way is to encourage investment in cutting-edge technology as well as technologies that require integration of advanced skills from several fields. Because it requires the most technological sophistication, space exploration is the most obvious choice. It is no coincidence that the United States enjoyed dominance in engineers in 1970, two years after Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. Nor is it an accident that the number of American engineers fell dramatically when the Apollo program ended, only to rise again as we ramped up for the shuttle.

Increased investment in the large number of technologies needed to return to the Moon and land men on Mars — as now approved by Congress and the Bush administration — would have the same galvanizing effect on U.S. scientific and engineering proficiency today. And a steady, sustained program of space exploration would maintain America’s critical base of engineering skills and fuel a broader increase in U.S. engineering talent.

At stake is the future of America’s superior defense systems, America’s position as the world’s most advanced technological leader, and the resulting spin-offs and technological and medical breakthroughs that benefit not only Americans but all mankind. We must renew our commitment and resolve to ensure America’s technological leadership for future generations.

Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas) has served on the House Science Committee for 26 years, and is the committee’s most senior member. He was ranking member of the Science Committee and chairman of the space and aeronautics subcommittee for several years. Rep. Hall is currently chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s energy subcommittee.