In the growing debate over whether the United States is losing its technological edge in a global economy (ScienceNOW  15 December), numbers matter. Those sounding the alarm frequently claim that India and China hold a five to 10-fold advantage in the annual production of engineers. But a new study has found that those statistics are wrong and that, under a standard definition of an engineer, the gap disappears.
The new analysis, led by Vivek Wadhwa, an executive-in-residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and Duke sociologist Gary Gereffi, explored the widely quoted figures that the United States awards 70,000 B.S. engineering degrees each year while India produces 350,000 annually and China as many as 650,000. Senators George Allen (R-VA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) used those numbers just yesterday, for example, in a press conference introducing a bill that would increase the number of U.S. science and engineering graduates.
"Our report was supposed to be about the outsourcing of jobs and, by extension, what courses U.S. students should take to have the best chance of finding employment," says Wadhwa. "But we kept bumping up against the U.S., India, and China comparison." After much legwork, the researchers obtained degree data from India's National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), China's Ministry of Education, and individual universities that it considered reliable. Those numbers, it turned out, included information technology and computer science degrees, as well as graduates of 2- and 3-year programs.
The researchers broadened the U.S. definition of engineering degrees accordingly, using data from the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. engineering societies. The result boosted the annual U.S. production of engineers to 221,000. In contrast, India's figure shrunk to 215,000, while China's remained at 644,000. Adjusted for population, the United States leads both countries by a considerable margin (see graphic). "Everybody is going around quoting the wrong numbers," says Wadhwa. "All we wanted to do is set the record straight."
Wadhwa says he's gotten some angry letters from Indians accusing him of being unpatriotic and from unemployed engineers who want the U.S. government to do more to help them find work. But he says that nobody has questioned the data. "Their numbers are right, as far as I can tell," says Harvard labor economist Richard Freeman, who follows the debate.
Freeman and other experts say that the new data don't change the fact that other countries are investing heavily in science and technology. And Gereffi doesn't disagree. "I'm not saying we don't have a problem and that we should be complacent," he says. But the authors suggest that policy makers should get their facts right before making any decisions.
- The report