Threat to Security Cited in Rise of Foreign Engineers

Times Staff Writer

The United States is becoming increasingly dependent on foreign engineering talent, to a degree that may impair U.S. defense industries and research, a panel of the National Academy of Engineering reported Tuesday.

The academy said a rising influx of foreign engineers into U.S. universities and industries since the early 1970s has helped to offset a decline in native-born Americans who pursue advanced engineering degrees. But it warned that a growing imbalance between foreign-born and domestic engineering talent poses a "major issue" for the "intellectual health and vitality" of the national security sector, which employs 20% of the nation's engineers.

In 1985, the study noted, 45% of engineering graduate students at all levels were foreigners living here on temporary visas, and another 10% were non-citizens with permanent resident visas. Government security regulations, however, exclude non-citizens from many, if not most, defense-related jobs.

Half of the youngest faculty at the nation's engineering schools--assistant professors under age 35--are now foreigners living in the United States on temporary or permanent resident visas, a fivefold increase since 1972. At the same time, foreign students collected 55% of the Ph.D. degrees in engineering awarded by U.S. universities in 1985, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Remarkably, the panel said, one-fifth of all U.S. engineering doctorates awarded in 1985 went to students from only three countries: Taiwan, India and South Korea.

The proportion of non-citizens among postdoctorate fellowship engineering students was said to have risen even more dramatically in recent years, to 66%, as growing numbers of American engineering students opted to forgo advanced studies and take jobs in industry that pay well, despite the lack of an advanced degree.

The panel said the federal government was partly to blame for the retreat from graduate studies, as it cut back in recent years on funds for fellowships open exclusively to American students.

Although the majority of foreign engineers who receive advanced degrees in America choose to stay here, the panel said that their rising proportion is reducing the acceptable pool of the most highly trained engineers available to many federal laboratories and defense contractors, which are required to hire U.S. citizens or prefer to do so for security reasons.

Trouble Getting Clearances

"These individuals, especially foreign nationals and immigrants with close relatives in foreign countries, are reported to encounter long-term difficulties in receiving special-access security clearances," the seven-member panel said in a 184-page report on foreign engineering manpower in the United States.

"Therefore, a substantial fraction of the most highly skilled (engineering) talent of this nation may not be available to enter critical areas of defense research and engineering. As a consequence, the necessary work in this sector may have to be undertaken by less highly trained engineers than is desirable," said the academy group, headed by Stanford S. Penner of the University of California, San Diego, department of applied mechanics and engineering sciences.

There is also some evidence, the panel said, that the presence of large numbers of foreign faculty in U.S. engineering schools is hampering cooperative relations between universities and some of the government's 338 national laboratories, many of which are devoted to weapons research and other aspects of national security.

Collaboration Hindered

Although it cited no specific examples, the panel said that "defense industries and some federal laboratories . . . find it difficult, if not impossible, to engage in collaborative efforts with university departments populated by non-citizen research assistants and faculty members."

Similar problems, it said, have arisen in relations between federal defense laboratories and industrial firms that hire foreign nationals and naturalized Americans who lack security clearances. Now, one in every three engineers with a doctorate degree working in U.S. industry was born outside the United States, and this proportion was said to be rising.

The panel concluded that no short-term remedies exist for the shrinking pool of highly trained engineers for national security work, apart from urging the Defense Department to let foreign-born graduates with close relatives abroad work in "selected, relatively less sensitive" programs after undergoing "astute screening."

Vacuum Eagerly Filled

Although some engineering schools have limited the numbers of foreign undergraduates admitted each year, the receding interest of American undergraduates in advanced engineering degrees has left a vacuum that highly qualified students from abroad have eagerly filled, the panel noted.

Although this brain drain has brought the United States a wealth of talent at little cost, the academy group said there are indications of at least two cultural problems stemming from the rising numbers of foreign faculty and graduate students who work as teaching assistants in engineering schools.

Many, including some distinguished professors, are said to speak English poorly. In addition, some experts worry that the traditional American emphasis on practical engineering problems may be eroding in favor of theoretical engineering sciences, a more prestigious pursuit but one less likely to contribute to American competitiveness in world markets.

No Sex Bias Observed

On the other hand, the academy said it sees no basis for concerns current among some educators that foreign faculty tend to discriminate against or discourage women from following engineering careers. Nor does it appear, the panel said, that foreign engineers have driven down industrial salaries.

Arguing that it is nevertheless in the national interest to right the balance between domestic and foreign talent, the panel called for major improvements in the teaching of science and mathematics "from kindergarten through college," to better prepare students for "intelligent citizenship in a highly complex technological society."

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