Why business must help with high-tech education
American education and research need more support from private business and industry if the nation is to keep up its leading contribution to the world's science and technology.There are risks as well as promise in the cooperation that is already growing, as today's Monitor pullout section on the subject makes plain. But the risks - when academic freedom runs into commercial sponsors' secrecy, for example - must be taken and overcome for several reasons:
* Apart from what the United States can continue to do for humanity through technological pioneering, it has economic reasons for not falling behind. It has to bolster its strengths in research, development, and high-tech industry to offset the shift of traditional manufactures such as steel, cars, and textiles to other countries.
* At this very time of need for additional qualified engineers, the US has a shortage of them.
* Heightening the odds against development of commercial technology are current federal policies reducing aid to educational institutions - and skewing federal investment toward military technology. The Pentagon already funds some 30 percent of all research and development in the US. Next year the Defense Department's share of government outlays for research and development is expected to be more than 60 percent. And, where past military technologies have sometimes been transferable to commercial uses, such transfer becomes less likely as military hardware becomes more like ''Star Wars.''
The sum of such problems means challenge to education all along the line - from the basics of math and science to ''computer literacy'' to higher learning and postgraduate refresher courses. It also means attitudes and practices fostering equal opportunity so that the nation's talents are not overlooked wherever they may occur. America has gone some way in the years since biologist Mary Bunting warned of the sex stereotyping that caused people to say to a little girl, ''My, what a pretty dress,'' and to a little boy, ''What are you going to be when you grow up?'' But unlocking the intellects of all requires continued expansion of individual expectations.
Cooperation between business and education has already done much to help young people realize their potentials. There is vast evidence of generous business aid. It includes not only more than a billion dollars a year to schools , colleges, and universities, but also assignment of personnel to teach or consult; acceptance of interns; provision of scholarships, books, equipment, even uniforms for the Little League or the school band.
It is a two-way street. Right now executives on detached duty are working with the National Commission for Cooperative Education at Boston's Northeastern University to spell out the cost-effectiveness.
Northeastern is one of a number of institutions that have long offered programs for students alternating terms of classroom study with terms of working for cooperating companies. Most of these students are in engineering. The combination of study and on-the-job training not only paves the way for future employment but acquaints students with the latest commercial developments.
But again the pace of technology today means that more is demanded. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study warned that simply improving current educational programs is not enough - a ''revolution'' is needed in engineering education. It would respond to the tendency of companies to hire new young engineers alert to the latest trends instead of ''retrofitting'' experienced but less in-touch ones. It would go beyond present scattered joint education projects by firms encouraging study on company time. It suggests an alliance between industry and education so that working engineers could pursue graduate education at least once a year for a 15-week course.
Such programs would fit in with making use of educational institutions while the population of undergraduate-age Americans declines. They would also help keep American science and technology second to none.