US president John F Kennedy at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962. Photo: Wikipedia
US president John F Kennedy at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962. Photo: Wikipedia

In a series of recent articles, David Goldman has argued that the United States needs to respond to the Chinese technological challenge by focusing university financial support on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and utilizing its national and industrial research laboratories to provide the innovation necessary to maintain industrial competitiveness.

He asks us to look back to US president Dwight D Eisenhower’s response to Sputnik in the 1950s and president Ronald Reagan’s response to the Soviet military challenge that arose in the 1970s. On the flip side, one might look back at the failure of the British to renovate their industrial base during the 1950s.

Unfortunately, there is a critical difference between the current situation and that faced by Eisenhower and his successor John F Kennedy: America’s engineering capacity has declined. Both education and research are at a lower level, and we have very few good US students.

On top of that, the people running the funding agencies and universities are, for the most part, not mathematically adept. There are good researchers, but they are buried in a sea of mediocrity, and are forced to do low-quality work in order to obtain funding. Fundamental research is frowned upon while computer-generated visualizations and unvalidated algorithms abound.

To make up for the poor education we Americans give to our own children, we have been bringing in huge numbers of foreign (mostly Asian) international students to fill our graduate programs

The essential problem is that the quality of mathematical education in the US has been declining for half a century. This decline now affects the entire scientific and engineering enterprise. To make up for the poor education we Americans give to our own children, we have been bringing in huge numbers of foreign (mostly Asian) international students to fill our graduate programs (81% of graduate students in electrical engineering are foreign). Some go on to be our leading faculty and researchers.

Yet while these students often arrive with excellent mathematical training, certainly superior to what they would get in our universities, they then must suffer through our graduate education, which is mathematically inferior to what they would have encountered in 1965.

Because scientific knowledge involves relations between quantitative variables, it is framed in mathematical formulae. By carrying a big mathematical toolbox, a scientist or engineer enhances his ability to construct scientific theories.

Given that the systems we work with today are more complex and are beset by greater uncertainty in their behavior than those studied 50 years ago (one might think of a human cell), a scientist or engineer should possess a greater knowledge of mathematics than his counterpart back then; however, he will likely possess substantially less.

The great breakthrough in engineering came in the 1930s and 1940s, led by the work of Andrey Kolmogorov in the Soviet Union and Norbert Wiener in the United States. They developed the understanding that to control a physical system, the best approach is to model the system mathematically and then analyze the system to determine the optimal method of control.

This work had immediate application in World War II. The mathematics necessary for this modern engineering developed rapidly through the 1950s and was required for graduate engineering students in good programs.

This requirement has been dropped in most of today’s American universities. Instead, engineers are groping around trying to find solutions by playing with a computer. On the other hand, in Iran, students are required to study the relevant mathematics at the undergraduate level. As a nation, we have, with forethought, decided that our children should have inferior educations to Iranian and Chinese children.

According to Goldman, 7% of American undergraduates study engineering, as opposed to approximately 30% in China. Now factor in that China’s population is five times the size of the US population, and one gets an ominous view of the future.

One might argue that many of China’s youth lack the opportunities to develop their abilities. Yes, but what about American youth? According to Pew Research, a survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that 16% think that US kindergarten-through-Grade 12 STEM education is above average, whereas 46% think it is below average. Surely, a student who lacks an above-average mathematical education is not a candidate for engineering.

This brings me back to Goldman’s recommendation for rebuilding corporate research to emulate the great labs of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Bell Laboratories. Excellent suggestion! But they will have to be staffed by Chinese, Indians and Iranians. Given the effort by Asian governments to lure their best citizens back home, this is an unstable situation.

Here is the choice before a top Asian PhD graduate in engineering: (1) remain in the US, spend two to five years as a postdoctoral researcher at a subsistence salary, then apply for one of the few available good faculty positions, and, if fortunate, go through a six-year probationary period writing grant proposals in the hope of getting tenure; (2) return to a faculty position at a top university at home, with funding to start your own laboratory and to support students.

If we are going to depend on Asian talent, then we must keep the best here in the US, whatever the cost.

We are a wealthy people because we have dominated the world technologically since World War II. This was in part a result of winning the war, but it was also due to good leadership, in particular, presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.

Every student should watch Kennedy’s speech at Rice University when he announced the program to go to the moon by the end of the decade. We had to be there before the Russians. Many scoffed, but it was done. Goldman wants to see that spirit again. I concur. But Kennedy had a major advantage: an abundance of mathematically educated scientists engineers, and a leadership mentality to bring that talent together to accomplish one of the greatest achievements in human history.

In the short run, the US federal government should fund high-quality institutes with sufficient incentives, both in terms of research infrastructure and salary, to attract the best scientists and engineers that we currently have, get them out of the clutches of administrative hacks, and let them address the fundamental problems of our day. Not one second of their time should be spent on fundraising or useless paperwork generated by the bureaucracy.

This will require that a small group of excellent researchers, be identified and full authority handed over to them – no easy task.

What about our big-name corporate labs? The answer is easy. Compare the mathematics training of their researchers with that of the scientists and engineers at Bell Laboratories in 1960.

In the long run, the situation can be remedied only if enormous political and financial pressure is brought to bear on university leaders to force them to unload the current bloated, incompetent administrations and replace them with people of the same scientific caliber and temperament as those running the top universities when Sputnik was launched. But this will do no good unless K-through-12 is revamped.

Overall it is a matter of will. Can the United States be forged into a force to sustain its technological and economic vitality, no matter the sacrifice? This question calls to mind Kennedy’s famous line from his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Are those charged with the responsibility for our scientific educational and research capacity morally capable of answering Kennedy’s call?

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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