A report released today by the National Academy of Engineers warns that the nation's scientists and engineers are dangerously ignorant of technological developments in other countries, and castigates American corporations and universities for clinging to "a bias against using what is 'not invented here' " despite technical advances abroad.
The report, which comes amid growing concern about the declining international competitiveness of U.S. industry, also cautions against what it calls "technological protectionism" -- responding to other countries' emerging technical sophistication by restricting the outward flow of American technology. "Technological isolationism will surely undermine the future of our industries and educational institutions," it said.
The report, prepared for the National Science Foundation by a panel of National Academy of Engineers experts from government, industry and academia, urges engineering schools to require more of their students to learn Asian languages and calls on the federal government to expand the opportunities for American engineers to study abroad.
The panel notes that of the 30,000 Americans attending foreign universities, only about 3 percent are studying technical subjects such as engineering, computer science, physics and business management. In contrast, there are more than 317,000 foreign students enrolled in American universities, and nearly 60 percent of them are studying technical subjects.
"The educational background of American engineers rarely includes exposure to other cultures, and foreign language skills are minimal," the report states. "Current engineering graduates see little incentive to pass up attractive offers of employment in the United States and work instead in an overseas engineering community for any significant period of time."
The panel found the need for more engineers who speak Japanese is particularly acute. Although the Japanese publish about 10,000 technical journals annually, only about 20 percent of that information is eventually translated into English.
Although most of Japan's engineers read English well enough to understand technical journals published here, there are probably no more than a few dozen American engineers capable of reading technical Japanese, according to experts.
Only five American universities offer courses in technical Japanese, and only one U.S. textbook has been published on the subject.
The engineering academy's report recommends that the National Science Foundation take the lead in organizing a $7 million program to support a year of study at universities in the Pacific Rim nations and in Western Europe for 100 to 200 American engineering candidates.
Faulting the scientific community for being ill-equipped to track technological developments in other nations, the report urges that the NSF pay for lecture tours in America by foreign technical experts, and recommends the government establish "international technology assessment centers" at several U.S. universities.
The report acknowledges that the U.S. government already expends considerable time and money gathering and translating technical information from abroad, but complained that existing efforts are poorly coordinated. It advised the NSF to organize an interagency study of federal efforts to track international technology, and come up with methods to ensure that information is more effectively disseminated to private institutions.