Tuesday, November 23, 2004


"Looks like we're in big trouble now, Tonto" "What you mean we, paleface?"

The Washington Post bemoans the growing crisis in US science and technology:
The facts are plain. U.S. visa procedures have become far too cumbersome, and bureaucrats are turning down far more applications than ever before. One crucial result is the dramatic decline of foreign students in the United States -- the first shift downward in 30 years. Three new reports document the magnitude of this fall. Undergraduate enrollment from China dropped 20 percent this year; from India, 9 percent; from Japan, 14 percent. The declines are even worse in graduate schools: applications from China have dropped 45 percent; from India, 28 percent.

Some Americans might say, "Good riddance, it's their loss." Actually the greater loss is ours. American universities benefit from having the best students from across the globe. But the single most deadly effect of this trend is the erosion of American capacity in science and technology. The U.S. economy has powered ahead in large part because of the amazing productivity of America's science and technology. Yet that research is now done largely by foreign students. The National Science Board (NSB) documented this reality last year, finding that 38 percent of doctorate holders in America's science and engineering workforce are foreign-born. Foreigners make up more than half of the students enrolled in science and engineering programs. The dirty little secret about America's scientific edge is that it's largely produced by foreigners and immigrants.

Americans don't do science anymore. The NSB put out another report this year that showed the United States now ranks 17th (among developed nations) in the proportion of college students majoring in science and engineering. In 1975 the United States ranked third. The recent decline in foreign applications is having a direct effect on science programs. Three years ago there were 385 computer science majors at MIT. Today there are 240. The trend is similar at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of California at Berkeley.

The hegemony of ideas is often a greater and more lasting source of power than brute force. When historians write about our times, they will certainly note that America dominated the international agenda for decades through this distinctive form of power.

But that hegemony is weakening for four reasons. First, America has become less attractive in the eyes of the world. Second, Washington is making it tougher to come here. Third, there is greater competition and more alternatives for the world's best students. (The biggest beneficiaries of the American decline have been universities in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.) And, finally, there are more opportunities around the globe. A software engineer in India can make a good living in Bangalore and not have to leave his country, culture and family behind.

Some of these problems can't be solved by the next secretary of state. But America's image abroad is something Rice could help improve. And visas will be entirely under her control. I understand the need for greater scrutiny after Sept. 11. But it has given already cautious bureaucracies a new rule: "When in doubt, deny the application." Every visa officer today lives in fear that he will let in the next Mohamed Atta. As a result, he is probably keeping out the next Bill Gates.
Notice that they say nothing about the war in Iraq, which is probably the single biggest cause of America's diminished image abroad. No mention that George W. Bush and his supporters are ignorant of science and its intersection with economics. Not a word about how conservatives seem to think that American dominance is somehow ordained by God and therefore not susceptible to the workings of history.

Just more pious advice to an administration that, if nothing else, has proven over the past four years that they just don't care what their critics say. If the Post really wanted change, it would start rousing the Democrats in Congress (especially in the Senate) to fight, to ask tough questions every chance they get. The administration is not going to listen to anyone. And too much of the public will never blame them for their failures. The only thing that will effect change is a shift in the balance of power. That will take time, and it will take even more time if it doesn't start now, or at least soon. The Post is preaching to exactly the wrong choir. They should talk to people who will at least listen.

As for the crisis in US science and technology, this has been brewing for a generation. Millions of American kids are being actively shielded from a decent scientific education by ignoramuses who think God will smite them unless they hold their fingers in their ears and go "La la la, I'm not listening!" any time someone else tries to say the word "evolution" in their presence. Considering that George W. Bush himself doesn't appear to accept the indisputable fact that evolution happened, how can anyone expect him to be a tribune for reversing the decline in Americans pursuing science as a vocation? Another point the Post, in its namby-pamby "Please, oh please, listen to us" bleat to Condoleeza Rice, completely misses.

Twenty years from now, when we are a second-rate power, some Americans will scratch their heads and say, "Wha' hoppen?" One benefit of a scientific worldview is, it teaches you to predict consequences (you may be wrong, which is the entire point of doing things scientifically, to learn from your mistakes how and why you made them, so as to do better in the future). Americans who don't know anything about science are continually surprised when things go wrong - and utterly incapable of figuring out what went wrong and how. The rest of the world will happily leapfrog us, if we let them.
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