(4) declining interest of American students in engineering, science, and other technical fields; and (5) growing uncertainty about the ability of the United States to attract and retain gifted engineering and science students from abroad at a time when foreign nationals constitute a large and productive component of the U.S. R&D workforce.
Today more than ever the nation’s prosperity and security depend on its technical strengths. The United States will need robust capabilities in both fundamental and applied engineering research to address future economic, environmental, health, and security challenges. To capitalize on opportunities created by scientific discoveries, the nation must have engineers who can invent new products and services, create new industries and jobs, and generate new wealth. Applying technological advances to achieve global sustainability will require significant investment, creativity, and technical competence. Advances in nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, new materials, and information and communication technologies may lead to solutions to difficult environmental, health, and security challenges, but their development and application will require significant investments of money and effort in engineering research and the engineering workforce.
Current patterns in research funding do not bode well for future U.S. capabilities in these critical fields. Record levels of federal funds are being invested in R&D, but these levels reflect large increases in funding for biomedical and life sciences; investments in other fields of engineering and science have increased slowly and intermittently (if at all). Because of competitive pressures, U.S. industry has downsized its large, corporate R&D laboratories in physical sciences and engineering and reduced its already small share of funding for long-term, fundamental research. The committee believes that the decline in long-term industrial research is exacerbating the consequences of the current decline in federal R&D funding for long-term fundamental research in engineering and physical sciences.
These funding trends have had a predictably negative impact on academic research and student enrollments in engineering and physical sciences. In fact, foreign nationals now comprise 40 percent or more of graduate enrollments in physical sciences, mathematics and computer science, and engineering. In addition, nearly two-thirds of the graduate and undergraduate students in engineering who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents are white males. Increasing the overall number of American students pursuing degrees in physical sciences and engineering will be essential to meeting the future challenges facing the nation, but it will not be enough. We must also increase diversity by recruiting more women and underrepresented minorities in technical fields to ensure that we have the intellectual vitality to respond to profound and rapid change.