They Come to Study


June 29, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington. -- There's one American product which continues to expand its sales as the world's favorite in a market of highly selective customers: university education, particularly in science and engineering.

The reasons for this success are worth looking at, because they provide clues to the mystery of excellence. But first, a quick review of the latest numbers, compiled by the National Science Foundation, the government's official scorekeeper in scientific research and related matters.

Foreign students at all levels -- undergraduate, master's, and doctoral -- rose from 339,000 in 1984 to 407,000 in 1991. During that time, the number of foreign students enrolled in graduate studies in science, engineering and health in the U.S. rose from 73,000 to 106,000. In 1991, foreigners accounted for 28 percent of all graduate science students and nearly half of all graduate engineering students. They received more than half the Ph.D.s awarded in engineering, computer sciences and mathematics.

By home country, the People's Republic of China was both the largest and fastest-rowing source of students enrolled in the U.S. At all levels of graduate studies, China with 40,000 students in 1991, an astonishing figure, given that virtually no students from China were enrolled in American universities until the late 1970s.

In 1982, only three citizens of China received doctoral degrees from American universities in science-related fields. By 1991, 1,600 citizens of them received sheepskins. From 1984 to 1991 the numbers of students from almost every foreign country continued to rise at American universities: France, from 3,180 to 5,630; Pakistan, from 4,280 to 7,730; Morocco, from 700 to 1,070, and so on, with few exceptions to the pattern of growth.

The cultural attractiveness of the United States for young people cannot be discounted as a draw to American campuses. But many if not most foreign students are dispatched and paid for here by private and governmental employers who want them to acquire skills needed at home. American fashions, music, social styles and cuisine are more likely to worry than inspire the patrons. The risks are overshadowed, however, by American strengths in science-related fields, the most popular among foreign students.

Academe's prowess in science is directly traceable to two factors: a great deal of federal money for research and a hotly competitive system for distributing it to an oversupply of hungry scientists.

The volume of money is staggering by the standards of other nations -- over $14 billion a year going from Washington to universities and other non-profit research organizations throughout the country. But as bountiful as that sum is, it's never enough. The result is a cut-throat atmosphere of feverish grant-proposal writing, against a background of policies of rooting out the least productive scientists.

The two biggest government bankrolls for university research, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, turn down about three or four applications for every one they accept. Administered through a process of scientists reviewing the applications of scientists, the system is neither pleasant nor always fair. But it surely holds the attention of those who wish to maintain careers in science. The basic rule is produce or get out.

In contrast, the research enterprise in most major industrial nations is geared to tenured career stability. Once in, a scientist can generally count on continued support for research, as long as a modicum of productivity can be claimed.

Beneficiaries of this system deny that it generates dead wood, arguing that assured support frees scientists from the grants rat race. It's worth noting, however, that as the Soviet Union was crumbling, research administrators there were attentively studying competitive research methods here as a replacement for their rigid system of tenured appointments.

Though the American research system creaks and groans as laboratory costs race ahead of federal appropriations and other sources of support, the vigor of the scientific enterprise is indisputable. The U.S. leads in most fields of science, and where it doesn't, it's right up there with the leaders.

Science students and the patrons footing their bills are savvy about scientific leadership -- a status that cannot be faked. They know that American universities are tops in the world. And that's why they flock here in ever-growing numbers. What we should not lose sight of are the ingredients of excellence: a great deal of money and fierce competition.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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