Renewing U.S. Telecommunications Research, a report published by the National Research Council in June 2006, documents, in very real terms, some of the issues facing the U.S. telecommunications industry and engineering and telecommunications in the United States vis-à-vis the global economy. The study committee for this report, of which I was a member and which included many national leaders, had difficulty agreeing on the reasons for the dire situation of telecom in the United States. We all agreed we were in trouble, but we did not agree on how we got there. When we got to how we could make up for lost ground, we had trouble finding a strategy that would enable us to “save” ourselves.
One thing we all agreed upon was that there is now a tremendous chasm between U.S. industry and U.S. academic programs. Before the dot-com bust, corporations were active on campuses, funding research and scholarships and investing in a dialogue. After the dot-com bust, telecom companies went into hiding. They were (and many still are) in survival mode. The companies that did survive saw their market capitalization decrease by factors of 10 or even 100. According to some sources, more than a million people in the telecom engineering sector lost their jobs. One million engineering jobs in one sector is a lot of jobs to lose.
Imagine the dinner-table conversations of grade-school children or high-school children whose moms or dads were laid off from Lucent or MCI or WorldCom or Global Crossing. Imagine them seeing their parents lose their jobs and their parents’ employers going bankrupt or their companies being sold.
The dot-com bust dealt a severe psychological blow to the telecommunications engineering profession. I have seen this first-hand in students who enroll in undergraduate programs at the University of Texas. Something must be done to change the situation if we are to have a reservoir of future technical experts who are U.S. citizens in the communications field.
Since 2002–2003 when U.S. companies went into survival mode, they have been trying to make quarter-by-quarter results for Wall Street. At the same time, U.S. funding agencies have moved farther from the needs of the wounded telecom industry. In the 1980s, DARPA funded entrepreneurial faculty and students who created technologies that fundamentally changed the telecom landscape. DARPA’s funding supported advances in fiber optics, the Internet, even cellular technology. However, in the last 10 years, and especially in the last few years, DARPA has moved away from supporting long-term research on academic campuses. In fact, it is now hard to find students who can qualify for DARPA funding, because recipients must be U.S. citizens, and they are becoming exceedingly rare in U.S. graduate programs.
Although NSF continues to do its part, and is a sponsor of the present study, it has not been able to fund relevant, long-term, industry-captivating R&D with its small grants. And telecom has not been included in NSF’s bold engineering research center (ERC) program, which has captivated the minds of American universities and industry and promoted interdisciplinary research.
As the study committee of Renewing U.S. Telecommunications Research argued, we need a U.S. initiative, a national policy that can repair the industry-academy chasm in the United States, particularly to address the huge number of corporate research jobs that were lost in the dot-com implosion. The industry-academy chasm will not be closed by market forces, which, in reality, encourage telecom companies to invest in emerging markets outside the United States where government subsidies and billions of potential customers await. If the United States hopes to invent the next Internet or remain a leader in telecommunications, if only to meet our own security needs, we must have a national policy that reverses the decline of U.S. citizens in graduate programs and ensures that they can pursue careers and research in communications.
Anecdotal evidence based on conversations with department heads, colleagues, and others involved with electrical and computer engineering departments at various universities reveals these changes dramatically. When you and I were in engineering school, a large majority of the students were U.S. citizens. Today, at the University of Texas, Purdue University, and the University of Florida—three schools I picked at random—two-thirds to three-fourths of the undergraduate students are U.S. citizens, and one-quarter to one-third are from other countries.
In graduate programs today, U.S. students account for 12 to 15 percent and are greatly outnumbered. In some schools, the number is as low as 8 percent; in others, it’s, perhaps, 20 percent. In short, U.S. students in graduate programs in electrical and computer engineering are a small minority. In undergraduate programs, they are still a majority, but just barely.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that recently I have noticed that my own students, and other students I talk to, want to go home after they graduate. They see huge economic opportunities in their homelands where multinational companies are investing. They see that the U.S. telecom industry is still in “hunker-down” survival mode and investing its precious capital in the emerging markets where future customers will come from.
So we have a problem. On the supply side, we have a problem attracting U.S. citizens at the undergraduate level. We must figure out how to attract students whose parents, and others in their parents’ generation, lost their jobs. If we don’t attract them they will feel more and more like strangers in their own land, as they become a smaller and smaller minority in engineering. As for demand, it is clearly in emerging markets and not in the United States.
Another aspect of the slippage in the U.S. position is a precipitous drop in the number of conference papers au-