The Disappearing Chinese Engineers

June 13, 2006

Pop quiz: What is the significance of 600,000, 350,000, and 70,000?

As anyone who has attended one of the many recent Congressional hearings on American science education or economic competitiveness knows, those are the numbers of engineers who graduated last year from institutions of higher education in China, India and the United States, respectively.

The numbers were included in a hugely influential report, titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” on the future of the American economy, which was released in October by the National Academies.

The hearings -- along with press releases from politicians and news articles, including a recent feature in Newsweek, that use the numbers -- have combined to pound out a steady drum beat of doom and gloom for the future of American science and engineering.

But the numbers, though oft repeated, are no longer embraced by the National Academies.

In February, after the report had already helped push President Bush to announce a major plan for science education during his State of the Union Address, according to senior government officials, the National Academies changed the numbers in the report.

Where 600,000 engineers once represented the number produced in China, now stand “about 350,000 engineers, computer scientists and information technologists with 4-year degrees,” the revised report reads. Those 350,000 are compared to a new number for the U.S.: 140,000.

The new numbers don’t seem to have gained quite as much traction. That’s perhaps because “there’s political utility in [the original] numbers,” according to Eric Iversen, manager of outreach for the American Society for Engineering Education. “The Bush administration has signed on to the American Competitiveness Initiative,” he said, referring to the plan announced in the State of the Union.

The number change came in response to a report issued by researchers at Duke University. The report found that, not only were the numbers simply wrong, they were comparing full-fledged engineers in the United States to Chinese workers who are the equivalent of motor mechanics.

Vivek Wadhwa, executive in residence at Duke and one of the report’s authors, said that “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” "had alot of good thought that went into it," but that "the engineering numbers were not based on fact or research."

In an e-mail, Deborah Stine, study director for the “Storm” report, said that “we are pleased Duke took on the task of better understanding the similarities and differences in the United States and China higher education systems.  It is still challenging for all of us to understand, however, the Chinese and India higher education system, and Duke has told us that they plan to continue their work to enhance our understanding in this area.”

She added that “the original number was one line in a report of over 500+ pages.”

Iversen said, however, that the one line has been amplified by the attention it has received. “The 600,000 has become the touchstone for the hysteria argument,” he said. He added that both Democrats and Republicans have frequently invoked it as part of their jockeying for who can put America on the course to a brighter future.

The 600,000 number was taken for the original report from Fortune magazine.

Both Iversen and Stine said that the change in magnitude of the numbers should not have any tangible effect on the courses of action taken because of the report.

“The updating of this number does not change the overall findings or recommendations of the report,” Stine wrote.

Iversen said the numbers “will take time” to percolate into the political discourse, but that “I don’t know how much that matters. Everything that’s come out of ACI has been a good thing to do.”

Joe Pouliot, a spokesman for the House Science Committee, said in an e-mail that the committee is aware of the number changes, but that “it doesn't change the conclusions or recommendations of the report.”

The one potential negative, according to Iversen and Wadhwa, is if the doomsday prophesying goes overboard, which it may already have.

As reported in an earlier article on Inside Higher Ed, some academics have said that even topflight engineering students, who should have no cause for concern, are questioning whether they should enter a field that they perceive as destined to be dominated by another country.

“That’s clearly a negative impact,” Iversen said.

Wadhwa said that China has a national plan to churn out engineers, quality ones or otherwise, and that basing policy on the raw numbers is a bit of shooting in the dark. “No one has really studied where the shortages are,” he said.

Perhaps luckily for the National Academies, Wadhwa is already at work on figuring it out.

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