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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Academic Dominance

Maureen Dowd's column yesterday mentioned that Obama was being accused of reading a book about the end of America written by a "fellow" Muslim. Turns out I read the same book, Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World.

Not so much about the end of America, but the gradual ending of America's economic dominance in the world. Zakaria contrasts America today with the rise and fall of the British empire. The book focuses on China and India, their recent rise and the challenges each faces, as well as suggestions for America to keep their competitive edge.

At the University level, Zakaria seems quite bullish on America especially in CS.

The situation in the sciences is particularly striking. A list of where the world's 1000 best computer scientists were educated shows that the top ten schools are all American. US spending on R&D remains higher than Europe's, and its collaborations between business and education institutions are unmatched anywhere in the world. American remains by far the most attractive destination for students taking 30 percent of the total number of foreign students globally. All these advantages will not be erased easily, because the structure of European and Japanese university—mostly state-run bureaucracies—is unlikely to change. And while China and India are opening new institutions, it is not that easy to create a world-class university out of whole cloth in a few decades. Here's a statistic about engineers that you might not have heard. In India, universities graduate between 35 and 50 Ph.D.'s in computer science each year; in America, the figure is 1,000.
We have seen some countries like Israel create world-class universities out of whole cloth in a few decades. The US did it themselves in the late 19th century. So China and India could have dramatical success at the university level if they make the commitment to resources and change. Until recently the Indians and Chinese have come in large numbers to our graduate programs and have just stayed in the US. Now, for may reasons not the least of which is the improving economic conditions in both countries, we are seeing more researchers heading back to their native countries whether it be Turing Award winner Andy Yao or just a large number of Indian scientists that are moving or plan to move back to India. Imagine the changes we've seen at Israeli universities in a country with a 10-digit population size.

18 comments:

  1. That'd be a 7-digit population size.

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  2. Why was the word "fellow" written between quotes?

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  3. Why was the word "fellow" written between quotes?

    Because Obama isn't a Muslim himself, while saying "fellow Muslim" suggests that he is. The phrase "fellow Muslim" comes from the Dowd column (attributed to someone who mistakenly believed Obama was Muslim).

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  4. So now just READING A BOOK
    is considered a bad thing?
    A thinking person SHOULD read books they disagree with to sharpen their thinking.

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  5. That'd be a 7-digit population size.

    I believe Lance was referring to China's population, as in, imagine what a country the size of China could do in creating world-class university programs.

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  6. On the one hand more academic opportunities in China/India may mean a shift in the balance of PhD power from the west to these countries... but on the other hand this also means that we could see a dramatic increase in the number of people thinking about the basic questions in computer science. This can only be good :).

    If the theory community grows in size by a factor of 10, that should at least double the odds of finding a solution to P vs NP in the next decade....

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  7. The wise Dr. Prabhakar Raghavan made the same point (lack of high-quality graduate education and research in India) quite eloquently in an op-ed piece that appeared in Forbes a year ago, on the eve of India's 60 years of independence from British rule:

    http://www.forbes.com/2007/08/05/india-higher-education-oped-cx_prg_0813education.html

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  8. The statistic about Indian PhD production may say more about the gap between India and China in this one category, than about India and China versus the US. PhD production in CS in China is much closer to that of the US (precise numbers are hard to find, though, it seems).

    I am also quite optimistic about both the US and China in terms of the future of computer science research. But why is this always presented as a competition for number one? Suppose both countries do well in this area but China slowly overtakes the US - would that be so much worse than both countries not doing well but the US keeping its top spot? It's not a zero sum game.

    Long term, a more interesting question to ask might be: if we see the emergence of a very large Chinese scientific community, we may also see more and more strong research being published in Chinese language publications. What will the absence of one dominant language (probably a historical accident of the last 50 years anyway, but one that has happened at the same time we have had an explosion of scientific research around the world) do to the research community? At the moment, we are getting more and more English language publications by Chinese researchers, but given the size of the Chinese research community you will probably also get more and more good work published in Chinese. English will clearly be important for a long time, but we may get two dominant languages.

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  9. Saying that Israel created good universities from "whole cloth" is not completely correct. Israel got immigration of very high quality researchers from day 1. For example, Frenkel (from Zalmano-Frenkel axioms) was in the Hebrew University math department from day one (1928 I think).

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  10. "...you will probably also get more and more good work published in Chinese."

    I hope they (and others) will also publish their good work in English for wider distribution (and for avoiding rediscovery as well).

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  11. Israel created good universities from "whole cloth" is not completely correct.

    They were also the beneficiaries of generous donations. Michael Chabon observed that there doesn't seem to be a university building in Israel that wasn't donated by a philanthropist from abroad.

    This is not to take away from their remarkable accomplishment. There are other countries with access to similar or larger amounts of funding which have not succeeded nearly as well in creating quality institutions.

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  12. we may also see more and more strong research being published in Chinese language publications.

    I hope not. The official policy of the government of France of fostering publication in French was detrimental to the quality and vigor of research in that country. This policy has only recently and quite belatedly been abolished.

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  13. A lot of Soviet Union physics research used to be published in Russian, and then translated into English in JETP and JETP Letters. Something similar would probably happen if large amounts of first rate research became available only in Chinese, or any other language. I wasn't active in physics then, but some people who were tell me that it was often better that way, as the translations were often better written than what you'd see written by someone without strong English skills writing directly in English.

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  14. I wasn't active in physics then, but some people who were tell me that it was often better that way, as the translations were often better written than what you'd see written by someone without strong English skills writing directly in English.

    I don't know about physics, but I can speak to what happened in coding theory. The translations were extremely useful for those of us who don't speak Russian, but they were sometimes very cryptic. The translators typically dealt with the basic grammar very well, and their translations probably flowed more smoothly than a typical paper written by a non-native speaker. However, the translator was often not an expert in that particular research area. From time to time this caused problems with technical terms. Sometimes they were just funny (I remember one paper that said "packaging" instead of "packing"). Sometimes they could be mildly confusing ("Hilbert-Varshamov bounds", since "Hilbert" and "Gilbert" are spelled the same in Cyrillic). Sometimes they were really difficult to understand (I don't recall a specific example offhand).

    In any case, people writing directly in English are less likely to completely mess up the technical terms, since they have presumably read papers that used exactly those terms.

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  15. Regarding comments #7 and #8, I have to respectfully disagree with the tone of Dr. Raghavan's article, if not the contents. In my opinion the time and energy of accomplished researchers like Dr. Raghavan would be better spent giving a boost to academic systems than criticizing them: it is this system that gave him a top-tier undergraduate education at basically zero cost to his family, subsidized by the government of a poor country.

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  16. In my opinion the time and energy of accomplished researchers like Dr. Raghavan would be better spent giving a boost to academic systems than criticizing them:


    I wasn't bothered by the tone of the article. I think offering constructive criticism can be tremendously beneficial, because of a fundamental human weakness: it's natural for all of us to emphasize our strengths and discount our weaknesses as not being important. India has every right to be proud of the IITs, which offer a world-class undergraduate education in technical areas. However, India desperately needs world-class graduate education as well. If nobody points this out, then Indian graduate students will continue to study almost exclusively in other countries (which is great for those countries but not so good for India). The government is unlikely to take any action without serious prodding...

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  17. That merely excellent graduate schools will solve the problem appears to me to be a myth.

    Imagine an India as corrupt and as fraught with uncertainties as it is today, but with 10 IITs in each of its 28 states. Though this might have some impact, it is NOT going to change much.

    Developed nations have many other things going for them. Their populace is (relatively) quite homogeneous and there is rule of law and accountability. They also have smaller populations. Their governments promote and reward innovation.

    India has long ways to go on all these fronts and I don't think it will ever become homogeneous. Just graduate education will not solve the problem. There needs to be an almost "capitalistic" awakening, whatever that means in the Indian context.

    -Gary Anonymous

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