Beware the "engineering gap"

Is China racing ahead of the U.S. in its ability to do basic technology research? Or far behind? Duke crunches the numbers, and the answer is: Both!

Published March 19, 2007 9:37PM (EDT)

A little more than a year ago, a report from the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke disputing the theory that China and India were graduating more engineers than the United States generated a fair amount of media attention. A close look at the data, trumpeted Vivek Wadhwa, the leader of the team that produced the report, revealed otherwise: The Indian numbers were overstated and the Chinese engineers were of poor quality. There was no "engineering gap."

Wadhwa pushed his contrarian message in multiple outlets. In a column for Business Week, he even argued that the defeatism implied by a comparison in which the U.S. came out poorly did a disservice to the U.S.

The message that our engineering graduates compete with 1 million graduates from India and China has created a sense of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Why would a smart student enter a field where their job might soon be outsourced? Rather than encouraging our children to study more math and science and become engineers, we're turning them into lawyers.

When the world hears that the U.S. education system is in decline, we scare away those who would otherwise come here to study. To keep America competitive, we must keep attracting the world's best and brightest. America needs to do all it can to fuel innovation and maintain its lead in science and technology. By repeatedly sending the message that we're weak, we in fact become weak.

With that in mind, let us now turn our attention to a new report from Wadhwa and Duke. Here's the main blurb from the press release:

The bottom line is that China is racing ahead of the United States and India in its production of engineering and technology PhD's and in its ability to perform basic research. India is in particularly bad shape, as it does not appear to be producing the numbers of PhD's needed even to staff its growing universities.

Racing ahead? In December 2005, Wadhwa told us that "the Chinese numbers aren't quite what they seem. In short, America is far ahead by almost any measure, and we're a long way from losing our edge."

So, let's get this straight: America is "far ahead" but China is "racing ahead."

Wadhwa and his co-authors are qualifying their previous assertions. It turns out that while China's production of regular old engineering B.A. degrees isn't so great, the story is different for master's degrees and Ph.D.s. There, China is in the lead.

Which means that where it really counts China is making significant strides. Perhaps Wadhwa should revisit his earlier proclamations. According to his new analysis, the U.S. is in danger of becoming weak. But according to his old analysis, that's exactly the kind of message that will make the U.S. even weaker.

Maybe the real message is to pay a little less attention to contrarian reports from Duke engineers.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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