Gates testifies about declining enrollments, research funding

Computer science undergrads vanishing, while competition for dollars increases

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates warned Congress today that the ability of the U.S. to "remain a technology powerhouse" is in jeopardy. His testimony drew focus to some trends in basic research and technology education that have alarmed others as well.

For example, undergraduate enrollments in computer science are plummeting. Lamenting the numbers, Gates said the U.S. "cannot possibly sustain an economy founded on technology preeminence" if it doesn’t have enough workers in these areas. He was the sole witness before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on U.S. competitiveness.

According to the Computing Research Association (CRA), which tracks student enrollments at Ph.D.-granting universities, the number of new undergraduate students who declared computer science majors in 2006 was half of what it was in the fall of 2000 -- 15,958 in comparison with 7,798.

If there was any good news in this, 2006 represents only a slight decline from 2005, when 7,952 new majors were reported, according to Jay Vegso, who prepared the CRA’s report on enrollment and graduate trends. Vegso says it's too early to say whether numbers are stablizing.

Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has no trouble filling its available seats, but the clamor for admission to its computer science program illustrated the broader trend. In 2000, it received 2,884 applications into its computer science program. But in 2005, only 1,700 applied. The school admits between 110 and 130 students annually into its program, according to a university spokeswoman.

But last year, the number of applications for Carnegie Mellon's computer science program increased to 1,850, still well below the level of 2000, while overall applications were up nearly 20% for all its programs for the 2007. The university has about 22,000 applications for 1,360 available seats in all is programs.

While some undergraduate programs may be having more success then others in attracting students, "there is no sign yet that there’s a surge" in overall enrollments, said Vegso.

Research feels the strain  

Federal funding for basic research -- the kind of computer and information science research that industry isn’t likely to fund -- has also been under stress.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds 87% of all basic research in academic computer science, said Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the CRA. But he said the NSF is beginning to show the strain of that burden. The NSF computer science and engineering is about $620 million, according to its budget.

The NSF estimates that it will fund only 18% of the submitted proposals to its computer and information sciences and engineering areas in the next fiscal year beginning in October. In 2000, it funded about 30%. The NSF doesn’t have enough money to fund all the proposals it received, "so there are lots of good ideas in computing that are going unfunded," said Harsha.

The kinds of projects gaining support is also affected by the funds available. Eugene Spafford, executive director of the Purdue University Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security, says that the NSF and other federal agencies that promote computer science research tend to fund shorter-term projects. As a result, they may be more likely to give money to projects to devise better ways of patching existing systems rather than invest in research projects that may take three years, five years or longer to develop.

"The result is that really innovative basic research that could lead to lead to major shifts in the way we do things ... isn’t really being done now," said Spafford, and "it has the additional effect that students being trained now are not being trained to look at long-term solutions."

Maintaining the U.S.'s competitive advantage is one of the underlying goals of a legislative push that began this week in the Senate, and high-performance computing systems stand to gain from it. The America Competes Act was introduced Monday by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and includes co-sponsors such as Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The bill would double research budgets at two agencies responsible for studying high-performance computing: the U.S. Department of Energy and the NSF. For instance, NSF funding would increase from $5.6 billion this year to $11.2 billion by 2011. The bill would also include initiatives for strengthening technical education, including encouraging elementary and middle schools to observe a "Science, Technology, Engineers and Mathematics Day" twice during each school year.

Commitment sought for funding, credit

Gates called on Congress to increase funding and offered some ideas about how to do it, including awarding research grants of $500,000 each annually "to 200 of the most outstanding early-career researchers."

In addition, he called for the creation of a "National Coordination Office for Research Infrastructure" to manage a centralized research infrastructure fund of $500 million a year.

Gates also asked Congress to make the research and development tax credit permanent -- an item on the wish list of technology industry groups for many years. That credit expires at the end of this year, but it has been renewed time and again by Congress. Businesses, which may budget for R&D projects for multiyear periods, have long complained to Congress that lack of permanence in the tax credit leaves them uncertain about whether they can plan on it.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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