Engineers and the Flat Earth

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, March 2008

You can hardly open a newspaper these days without seeing something about globalization, outsourcing, free trade, and economic competitiveness. The articles usually focus on policies and politics, but many of the underlying causes and future consequences have to do with engineers. Our communications and information technologies are largely responsible for what is being called the “flat earth” and the “death of distance.” Moreover, the keys to dealing with these trends are seen in the size, productivity, and innovativeness of a nation’s supply of engineers and scientists.

In 2005 a committee of the National Academies issued a widely-disseminated report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” This report discussed trends it said were leading towards a looming inability of the United States to compete in the global marketplace. While the report itself is quite voluminous, the chairman of the committee, Norman Augustine, has written his own shortened version, entitled “Is America Falling off the Flat Earth” (freely available at

I’m often concerned about the public’s acceptance of reports written by engineers saying that that there need to be more engineers and that they need to be better supported, but the “Gathering Storm” report has achieved wide support by both the press and the congress. The report concludes that both individual and national prosperity depend primarily on individuals having high quality jobs, and that the creation of such jobs is disproportionately dependent on advances in science and engineering. A similar conclusion is reached by Thomas Friedman in his best-selling book, The World is Flat, where he says that “mathematics and science are the keys to innovation and power in today’s world.”

If we accept these conclusions, then the questions become: how do we get more engineers, and how can we make them more productive and innovative? The first question is one I’ve heard discussed endlessly through the years. Why aren’t there more of us engineers? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a good answer to this question, and in the US the statistics are particularly discouraging. In the past two decades the numbers of engineers, mathematicians, physical scientists, and geoscientists graduating with bachelor’s degrees have declined by 18%. As a proportion of the graduating students, the percentage decline is 40%. The number of engineering doctorates awarded by US universities to US citizens dropped by 23% in the last decade.

While the number of engineering graduates in the US has declined, the number of law degrees in the last two decades has increased by 20%. For every US citizen awarded a PhD in engineering, US universities produce 18 lawyers and 50 MBAs. In fact, the US is graduating more visual and performing arts majors than engineers.

The solution to the dearth of engineers is said to lie in improvements to the elementary education system. As Augustine observes, “it takes a lot of third graders to produce one engineer.” The fallout of students from the option of pursuing an engineering career is precipitous, and by the time of high school graduation only 15% of students have the necessary mathematical background to even consider engineering. I often wonder about how young students view engineering. My belief is that they think engineering takes math (which they dislike), it’s hard, and it’s not sufficiently rewarding. Fixing the educational system and changing these opinions in the US won’t be easy.

The other part of the competitiveness equation lies in a nation’s innovation ecology for the creation of new jobs. While the availability of funding for the incubation and implementation of ideas is an essential ingredient to be provided by the industrial sector, the responsibility for basic research has turned recently almost entirely to the universities and government. Industry now spends three times as much on litigation in the US as it does on research, and while a number of studies have shown substantial societal returns on research investment, industry has become doubtful that these returns can be captured by the original corporate investment, or that the returns will be on a time scale consistent with investors’ expectations.

In spite of the almost total dependence upon the government for funding engineering research, its investment in the US has been relatively stagnant for the last two decades. The principal supporter of university research, the National Science Foundation, is only able to fund a small fraction of the proposals it receives. Not only is the amount of funding an issue, but the best strategy for research investment has been the subject of continuous debate for many years.

So we engineers are largely responsible for creating the flat earth, and we’re seen as the key to mitigating or capitalizing on its effects. But as Norman Augustine says, we in the US are in danger of falling off this flat earth. The trends are bad, and look to be almost irreversible, as the pool of engineers shrinks and the innovation ecology stagnates. Elsewhere in this flat earth, the story is considerably different.

Robert Lucky