High-tech China

December 18, 2005

China's manufacturing cost advantage, growing research and development efforts and millions of science and engineering graduates are helping Beijing rapidly catch up with the United States' high-tech capabilities - posing not just an educational and economic challenge but also a potential military threat.

Let's connect some of the dots:

Almost half the states are doing a poor job setting high enough academic standards for science in their public schools, according to a report recently released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The institute found that many U.S. schools simply aren't serious about teaching science and math. No wonder American high school students perform poorly on tests when compared to their peers from many other nations.

About a third of all U.S. bachelor's degrees are in science and engineering with less than 5 percent in engineering. In China, about 60 percent of all degrees are in science and engineering with most in engineering. One outcome: U.S. universities used to dominate the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming contest, but they haven't won the world championship since 1997. This year, the University of Illinois came in 17th, with Shanghai's Jiatong University leading the field.

Although doctorate degrees granted in science and engineering in the United States increased in 2004 for the second year in a row, the number is still short of its 1998 peak, according to the National Science Foundation. And more than 50 percent of the 2004 degrees were awarded to non-U.S. citizens - who received an even greater share of the doctorates in engineering, computer science, mathematics, and physics.

China last year overtook the United States as the world's top exporter of information and communication technology goods (laptops, mobile phones and digital cameras), according to a report released Monday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. The data reflects not only China's growing manufacturing prowess but its determined efforts to move up the technology scale - including luring increasing investments by multi-national corporations in cutting-edge research and development activities in China.

China's substantially expanded role in the global supply chain for advanced technology should be of serious concern for U.S. defense interests, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in its annual report last month, finding: "While the U. S. defense industrial base is not dependent on Chinese imports at the present time, the Chinese government's coordinated strategy ... is weakening the health of key U.S. commercial sectors on which the U.S. defense establishment relies."

The national challenge - economic, if not military - is clear, as are its roots in the failings of America's schools. Almost 50 years ago, in response to the Soviet Union's launch of the world's first satellite, Americans sought to defend national interests by strengthening science education. Another such push - one more highly focused than the post-Sputnik hysteria - is now in order.

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