Science, engineering Ph.D. numbers buck downturn

Degrees awarded climbed 2.8 percent last year, likely easing some worries that the nation is losing its technological edge.

Is the United States really losing its technology edge? A rise in science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded might ease some worries.

U.S. universities awarded 25,258 science and engineering doctorates from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003, according to data published this month by the National Science Foundation. That's a 2.8 percent rise from the 24,571 doctorates awarded the previous year, reversing a downward trend that began after a 1998 peak of 27,278.

Production of science and engineering doctorates in the United States is seen by some as vital to the country's technological leadership, given the way fundamental research can translate into new products and even industries.

The post-Internet-bubble drop in new doctorates has caused concern, as has the degree to which research projects these days are seen as too safe or less likely to lead to dramatic breakthroughs.

A more recent worry centers on a decline in enrollment of international graduate students in the United States. Foreigners historically have earned a large percentage of technology-related doctorates. According to NSF data, foreign students with temporary visas comprised 55 percent of the 5,265 engineering Ph.D.s last year.

Not everyone thinks the number of Ph.D.s awarded is critical to the country's global competitiveness. Some observers argue that the country already has plenty of doctorates and that a drop in foreign students isn't cause for alarm.

"It's not clear to me that just looking at production of Ph.D.s is a good way of assessing innovation," Ron Hira, a public-policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said in an August interview with CNET

Moreover, some view the currently large proportion of foreigners in U.S. graduate programs as a source of trouble--such as fewer openings for Americans. "(Universities) have preferred foreign students over American students," said John Miano, founder of The Programmers Guild activist group.

The number of doctorates awarded from U.S. universities in all fields increased 1.9 percent last year, to 40,710, according to NSF.

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