It was the computer programmer's equivalent of the World Series, the Olympics, and the Super Bowl all packed into one event.
The final score at the conclusion of the TopCoder Open in Las Vegas: “crazybOy” one, United States of America zero.
“CrazybOy” — the “handle” of programmer Bin Jin, a remarkable 18-year-old high school student from Shanghai — bested 4,200 other competitors (many of them code-writing pros with masters degrees and Ph.D.s) to win TopCoder's annual algorithm contest. He and others delivered a
Sputnik-style beat-down to the United States in the process.
Of the 70 finalists, 20 were Chinese. Ten were Russian. Six were Indonesian. Six more came from Ukraine. Four of the finalists were Canadian. Poland (population 38 million), the Philippines (92 million), and Argentina (40 million) placed three programmers apiece in the finals.
The number of U.S. finalists: two. The number of U.S. champions in the nine events: none.
Experts say it's further proof that science and math illiteracy are endangering U.S. global competitiveness, and could even threaten U.S. national security. After all, it's no accident the
contest was sponsored by the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) — the cryptographic “puzzle palace” in Fort Meade, Md.
Marvin J. Cetron is founder of Forecasting International and one of the world's leading forecaster-futurists. He served as White House adviser and consulted for more than 400 of the Fortune 500 firms, 150 professional and academic organizations, and 100 government agencies, including the CIA
Increasingly, science and national security are one. Officers in trailers at U.S. air bases pilot unmanned drones to seek and destroy terrorists in Afghanistan. (In fact, Creech Air Force Base,
only 35 miles northwest of the Las Vegas resort where the TopCoder Open was held, conducts such missions daily.)
The bottom line: Lamentations about the state of U.S. science are more than fodder for PTA meetings.
“The scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength,” the National Academy of Sciences recently reported. “Although many people assume that the United States will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world. We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost — and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all.”
As the global scramble for the technological high ground heats up, those lads vying for a trophy
in Las Vegas may soon find themselves locked in a far more serious competition — a binary battle of ones and zeros as geeks gaze at computer screens and determine who wins future battles.
It is a competition the United States appears increasingly ill-equipped to win.
In 2008, hackers launched more than 70,000 cyberattacks on American computer networks. Many were launched by foreign governments using sophisticated code written by top-flight programmers. America's own army of techno-geeks is all that protects the nation's most sensitive secrets.
In that light, concern that America has failed to keep pace with the burgeoning scientific infrastructures of other nations seems appropriate. “Without workers equipped with the science, technology, engineering, and math skills to succeed in the 21st century,” Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donahue has warned, “the United States will lose the global race for talent and its position as the economic leader of the world.”
So What's Wrong With the U.S.?
America's technology infrastructure has both a quantity problem and a quality problem.
The quantity problem is simply a matter of numbers. The numbers don't lie . . . and they don't look pretty, either. There are about 488,000 scientists and 1.5 million engineers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Add 267,000 technicians, and about 2.7 million computer scientists, programmers, engineers, teachers, and related professionals, and the U.S. technology infrastructure numbers about 5 million people.
About half of these critical professionals, however, are nearing retirement age. Each day, the Sputnik-era science surge and the glory days of NASA fade further into the past.
The tale of the tape does not augur well for America: The Department of Labor estimates that the nation requires 114,000 new engineering graduates each year. However, it graduates only about 70,000 according to most reports.
A Superpower in Decline?
In Europe, 12 percent of all graduates major in engineering. In China, a nation of 1.35 billion people, that same number is 40 percent.
In the United States, just 6 percent of undergraduates are engineering majors. So when it comes
to scientific brainpower, America is increasingly outgunned.
Indeed, the brightest 20 percent of Chinese students outnumber all of the young people currently living in the United States. In India, it's a similar picture. And as these nations develop, much more
of their school-age population will receive an education.
That is why, according to former Purdue University President Martin Jischke, fully 90 percent
of all scientists and engineers will soon reside in Asia.
On a purely numerical basis, therefore, the United States would have to provide a very high level of science and mathematics education in order to offset the numerical advantage of larger countries.
Studies indicate the performance of American students in science and math, however, is clearly inferior. In 2006, for example, the Programme for International Student Assessment tested 15-year-olds around the world in science, math, and reading.
Students from 57 countries participated in the testing. U.S. students placed 29th in science proficiency, behind Latvia, Croatia, Slovenia, Liechtenstein, and Estonia, to name a few. Even in reading literacy, American youngsters didn't fare so well, ranking 18th. Increasingly, studies on the global competitiveness of America's up-and-coming scientists are report cards you don't want to open.
A decade ago, the United States was able to augment its scientific cadre with immigrant-scientists drawn to the United States.
They studied at top U.S. colleges, took jobs with U.S. firms, and would often go on to become naturalized citizens. Indeed, more than one-third of Nobels awarded for research performed in the United States have gone to immigrants.
It was common just a few decades ago to hear European intellectuals bemoaning the “brain drain” to the United States. Today, the global intellectual tide appears to be reversing. Increasingly, the world's greatest scientific minds are casting an envious eye at opportunities beyond U.S. shores.
There are several reasons for this decline:
• In 1987, Congress and President Clinton killed the Superconducting Super Collider project. The Super Collider was expected to be the world's largest atom smasher, and the decision to end the project signaled a reluctance to pay for major science projects.
The collider would have attracted thousands of scientists from abroad. Now, they're lining up to work at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland instead.
• Military research is consuming an increasing portion of the R&D pie. DARPA, the storied research agency that developed the Saturn V moon rocket, UAV drones, and the Internet, now focuses increasingly on mundane, albeit vital, war-fighting tasks such as making Bradley
Fighting Vehicles resistant to roadside IED bombs.
• Funding is harder to come by. U.S. spending on research and development, when measured as a percentage of GDP, has been shrinking for the past 15 years. President Barack Obama has promised to renew America's commitment to scientific innovation, and the $787 billion stimulus included substantial funds toward that end.
• Post 9/11, student visas are much more difficult to obtain. Once students arrive,
they encounter greater scrutiny and regulation.
• This year, only a little more than half of such students say they want to remain
in America. In past decades, more than 90 percent of Chinese nationals who earned Ph.D.s at U.S. schools planned to remain in the United States for at least five years.
AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Information, blames the economy. “Foreign students have a sense that the United States is closing down as a land of opportunity,” she says.
That's important considering that nearly a third of U.S. science degrees, and 60 percent of U.S. engineering degrees, are awarded to foreign nationals. One ominous indicator, Saxenian says: A majority of foreign s
tudents now believe innovation over the next 25 years will occur faster in China and India than in the United States.
Dr. Vivek Wadhwa, a Duke University professor and Harvard Law School researcher, who along with Saxenian has carefully studied the American “science gap,” says the recession is postponing recognition of a serious shortage.
“We're in a recession, and there is enough good talent now,” Wadhwa says, adding, “But long term, it will hurt like you won't believe.”
Failure Is Not Tolerable
The good news: Experts say it's not too late to reverse the decline of America's intellectual infrastructure. After all, of the nine 2009 Nobel laureates in medicine, chemistry, and physics, three were scientists born and educated in the United States. Two other laureates were born overseas, and came to the United States.
Maintaining America's technological edge in a hostile world requires a willingness to invest the resources needed to nurture new fields of scientific endeavor.
This much is certain: Failure is not an option. Ignoring the need to rebuild America's scientific infrastructure, experts warn, could carry an enormous price tag.
“Losing critical talent means arming the U.S.' competition,” says Wadhwa. “The next Google, Microsoft, or Apple could be launched in Shanghai or Bangalore.”
America stands unrivaled for scientific achievement, but its advantage is evaporating fast. If we
hope to bolster our economy and security, fixing the problem won't come cheaply. A few suggestions:
• First and foremost, we must get serious about overhauling our educational system. Schools have to graduate students who are fully able to succeed in an increasingly competitive, high-tech world.
• Studies show today's students learn better online than in the classroom. So let them attend lectures over the Net and gather only for lab work, social interaction, and other such functions. This would cut school costs and improve learning.
• Train teachers to effectively use computers and other high-tech aids. Kyle Peck, associate dean
for outreach, technology, and international programs at Penn State, often uses a favorite quotation: “Technologies will not replace teachers, but teachers who use technologies well will replace those
• Provide advanced K-12 programs. Such programs should include science and math for gifted students who can make the most use of them.
• Make sure teachers understand their own subjects. It is not enough to have passed teacher's school classes in pedagogy. No one can effectively teach math or science unless they can at least pass their course's final exam.
• Mandate merit pay to reward teachers whose students show the greatest progress. Toledo and a few other districts have proved that it can be done fairly and successfully.
• Help teachers improve. Assign the best to mentor those whose performance is not quite so stellar, and pay them for the extra duty.
• Emulate North Carolina's Project Bright IDEA, chaired by veteran educator Margaret Gayle.
Test scores, the identification of gifted students, and student and teacher motivation all have soared
since the program began nine years ago.
• Retrain teachers to build extremely rigorous curricula from scratch. Retraining should include using business life skills, collaborative problem-solving exercises, and conceptual analysis.
• Revise immigration policies. Students seeking to matriculate in America — especially those pursuing careers in math and science — deserve a warm welcome. — M.C., D.P.
As originally published in Newsmax magazine.