WASHINGTON — WE CAN WEATHER an oil shortage. The more dangerous problem is that we're running low on brain power. Doubt that? Then pay attention to two separate but related items:
First, Congress is en route to changing the immigration law to ease the entry of foreign scientists and engineers to fill vacancies in industry and education. The change is inspired by spot shortages of specialists and declining enrollments of American students in scientific and technical studies. The drop has led to numerous forecasts of impending shortages in the professions that underpin our high-tech society.
Second, national-average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test have again either gone down or remained stuck at relatively low levels, continuing a pattern that has persisted with only minor variations over the past 40 years. In 1951 SAT verbal scores stood at 476; today they're at 424. In the same period, math scores fell from 494 to 476.
Various explanations are offered for the dismal record on SATs, which are mainly taken by applicants for the choosier institutions of higher learning. The most popular analysis is that the averages are pulled down by the increasing number of college-bound minority-group students, who generally score lower than whites.
But despite a decade of intense political agitation about the derelict state of American education, the scores for white students have slumped, too. This is shown in ethnic data compiled since 1976 by the College Board, which produces the tests. Between 1976 and 1990, the verbal scores for whites declined from 451 to 442; the math scores went from 493 to 491. Black students have scored the biggest gains, but even so, their average SAT scores remain considerably below the national levels.
The SAT results are sadly in harmony with comparative international tests, which invariably find American students behind their foreign counterparts in basic subjects, particularly math and science. George Bush, casting himself as the Education President, has proclaimed that, through reforms promoted by his administration, American students will be world leaders in these subjects by the end of the decade. But his optimism is not accompanied by federal money for financially strapped school systems. And few on the front lines of education see any substance in Mr. Bush's claims of deep commitment.
The enrollment picture in science and engineering is in part attributable to a dip in the college-age population, 18-24, from about 30 million in 1980 running down to 21 million by the year 2000, when an upturn will occur. But the unavoidable demographic problem is compounded by declining science and math enrollments on campuses nationwide. The reasons are complex, but the most prevalent is that these subjects are tough, high-school preparation is poor and career-minded students don't want to blot their academic records.
A brain-power deficit is increasingly viewed as a certainty starting around the turn of the century. According to an analysis by Richard T. Atkinson, Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, the American economy will require 18,000 new science and engineering Ph.Ds by the end of this decade, but only 10,500 are expected. ''This imbalance,'' Mr. Atkinson warns, ''will have devastating consequences for colleges and universities and for business and industry.''
Past shortages have easily been made up by foreign-born scientists and engineers, who now comprise some 20 percent of the American technical work force. But with other nations developing advanced scientific establishments, the lure of America lessens as professional opportunities in the home culture become more appealing. South Korea, for example, has achieved considerable success in recruiting its native-born scientists from American laboratories. And with science and engineering healthy in Europe, the impulse for the traditional westward brain drain is substantially reduced. The new immigration legislation specifically aims to replace the traditionally tortuous admissions process with a fast track for needed specialists, thus bringing in many scientists and engineers who otherwise might not make it.
That will help. But in seeking this solution, the U.S. is acknowledging an appalling weakness that it has chronically failed to correct: we can't produce the brainpower to run our society.