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How the US can keep its high-tech edge

At stake, according to leaders in US industry and academia, is the technological leadership of the world.

US colleges and universities are not producing nearly enough technically trained graduates. Japan graduated more engineers than the United States - three times as many on a per capita basis. Engineering degrees make up 5.7 percent of all bachelor's degrees in the US. In Japan, the percentage is 20.7 and in West Germany, 37.1. And the teaching of math and science at the US high school level - the foundation for college training - is so poor that it is ''a national scandal,'' according to Paul Gray, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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Among recent signs that universities and industry are awaking to these challenges:

* A plan sent to President Reagan by the American Association of Engineering Societies aimed at solving the critical shortage of engineering faculty at universities. The four-point proposal, with an estimated price tag of $467 million over 10 years, would offer financial support to faculty, encourage study for doctoral degrees, lure qualified people with White House engineering professorships, and set aside matching federal funds for university development.

* A call for a new ''Morrill Act'' to benefit higher education, especially in high-technology areas. The orginal Morrill Act of 1862 created the nation's land-grant universities and harnessed higher education on behalf of agricultural and economic development. The new act would include a billion-dollar federal program matched by industry to upgrade science and engineering training. It is outlined in a just-released book, ''Global Stakes: The Future of High Technology in America,'' whose effect in rousing national concern is already being called that of ''a new Sputnik'' by some educators.

* A just-released MIT study is calling for a radical new level of cooperation between educators and industry coordinated by a national council. The traditional educational pipeline cannot meet future needs quickly enough, argue four engineering faculty members at MIT. They argue far more cooperation must take place between universities and industry if the US is to keep a hold on the technological leadership of the world.

The education of today's engineers and computer scientists cannot end when they receive their diploma, the MIT educators say in a study released last weekend.

In the fast-developing engineering and computer science fields, points out one of the study's authors, Robert M. Fano, a ''major innovation'' comes along every four or five years and an average of one totally new subject is introduced every year. The result, he says, is that after four years a student is already ''slightly obsolete.''

Other studies have concluded that five years out of college, 50 percent of an engineer's knowledge is obsolete. ''Engineers who have been out of school for more than a few years may be unable fully to understand what their younger colleagues are saying, writing, or proposing,'' the report says. The attitude in industry has been that ''if we need (an engineer), we'll go hire one,'' says Louis D. Smullin, one of the MIT study's authors. That's resulted in engineering ''becoming sort of like professional football - you're done when you're 35 or 40 . The companies are going out to hire the new 25-year-old kids, and either laying off or finding less meaningful jobs for the old people - old meaning 35 or 40.''

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With new technical talent in short supply, says the MIT group, the US can no longer afford to let its working engineers become out of touch with universities. It proposes a number of steps that it says should be taken quickly before the crisis worsens. They ask universities to offer off-campus graduate programs for engineers and urge industry to encourage engineers to spend up to 10 percent of their time in the classroom, catching up on new technological developments. A national council should be created, they say, to act as a ''buffer'' between the industry and academia.

Innovative programs already exist, both on campus and at the workplace. Among them:

* Stanford University in northern California televises engineering classes to several thousand ''students'' at about 100 high-tech firms in nearby Silicon Valley. Two-way audio contact permits a working engineer to not only observe and listen, but to ask questions. Videotapes are also offered to 30 others locations out of range of the TV hookup on the condition that the company provide a tutor approved by the school. The $1 million in tuition fees paid by the companies are a highly valued side benefit for the school at a time of budgetary constraints.

* MIT's Center for Advanced Engineering Study offers videotaped lectures and demonstrations aimed at practicing engineers. The financially self-supporting program is the largest of its kind in the world. In all, about 30 universities are already reaching an estimated 44,000 engineers at their workplace through similar programs.

One group of 20 engineering universities, the Association of Media-Based Continuing Education for Engineers, has called for a ''national technological university'' using satellite television.

* In industry, the ''Kelly College'' at Bell Telephone Laboratories and the RCA Institute are two well-known examples of ''in-house'' training. Among the new high-tech firms, Wang Laboratories in Boston has established the Wang Institute. The institute, which lures top professionals with high faculty salaries, is developing a new area of study in software engineering that combines managment with technology.

These efforts, however laudable, says the MIT group, still fall far short of the needs. Some experts estimate the ''knowledge intensive'' high-tech industries are expected to trail only energy in size by the year 2000. Foreign governments, particularly France and Japan, have formulated and acted upon national plans to protect and strengthen their high-technology sector.

If a coherent US national strategy cannot be formulated soon, says James D. Bruce, another author of the MIT report, the US is in danger of losing its place at the forefront of industrial development. ''We can either hold on to our lead and stay in the front lines,'' he says, or lose out to more aggressive competitors. ''We'll export coal, we'll export wheat, a few other things. And we'll take in other people's laundry. But we won't do anything interesting that other people wouldn't do.''

''Those countries who are keeping their engineering system in top-notch shape - the manufacturing system - will tend to produce goods and services that will be better, of higher quality, than those we produce ourselves,'' adds Dr. Smullin.

x The danger that close industry-university ties could constrict academic freedom is real, says the MIT group. But it is a problem that must be met and mastered, they say.

''I'm very concerned about the process that will keep the university intellectually free and not a servant,'' says Dr. Smullin. ''But a partner is different that a servant. . . . It's going to take a very strong university president who will see to it that in the end we don't bend policy just because it's to the advantage of one industry.''

Close cooperation is essential, the MIT group says, because the engineering differs from other sciences like physics. Much of the seminal research is already going on in industry. Recycling that knowledge back to the university is essential.

Over the last three years, industry funding for research at MIT has tripled to about $21 million a year. That still accounts for only about 10 percent of off-campus funding, the lion's share of which comes from the federal government, especially for national defense purposes.

Greater spending by high-tech industries may serve to further diversify university funding sources. ''If you have several customers, you don't depend on any one of them,'' says Smullin.

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