MIT's Chief On America's Slide And How To Fix It

Susan Hockfield will become the first female president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in early December, taking on huge challenges at the premier U.S. science school. She spoke with BusinessWeek's Boston bureau chief, William C. Symonds, in her office at Yale University, where she has spent nearly 20 years, the last two as provost. Now she's getting ready to move to Cambridge with her husband, Thomas N. Byrne, a neurology professor, and their 12-year-old daughter.Why are you so concerned about the future of U.S. science?Because we're falling behind. We're not keeping up with other countries in our investment in science and engineering.

The science and math scores for our high school graduates are disastrous. We're underfunding research in the physical sciences, and we're lagging seriously on publications in these sciences. This is a problem for our economy, and we have to think about where we want to be 20 to 40 years from now.What should we be doing at the K-12 level?After Sputnik we turned our focus to math and science and were inspired about this. My sense is that we have lost this. We need to raise expectations. [Only] a small group of U.S. kids can compete with the best in the world. But golly -- there are children in the next group who could be world leaders but who don't have the opportunity because their education is not sufficient. We need to re-inspire the nation to value the people who work in science and technology.

Why is the number of students majoring in engineering and the physical sciences at the undergraduate level declining?

The life sciences and biotechnology are fabulous right now. But in the physical sciences, the future is bleak. So when a student talks to a guidance counselor and learns that funding is not good and that it will be hard to go to graduate school, [he or she loses interest]. At the same time, when many students arrive at college, their intellectual equipment is insufficient for them to take on the rigors of a bachelor's degree in engineering or the physical sciences. It is hard work.What does that mean for our economy?We see the consequences.

If you look at any industry with a big demand for people in the physical sciences and engineering, an increasing number of the people working in those industries are non-Americans.Yet now the number of foreign students coming to the U.S. is falling, right?Nationally we've seen a 30% falloff in applications for graduate school from international students. A lot of things feed into this. It is very hard to get into the U.S. now. Yet Canada, Australia, and Britain are making it easier for people to go there for graduate education.

Why is that a problem?People have come from around the world to be educated in the U.S., and they have stayed. They have become part of America's economic engine. And it's not the case that we have plenty of native-born Americans to fill these roles. So if we cut off these opportunities, these people will go somewhere else. And ultimately, we could lose our position as a world leader in science and technology.Why is it so important that women move up in the academic world?

Universities play an absolutely critical role. They are training the next generation of leaders. And while I was not daunted by not having women faculty, it is hard for [many women] to imagine a career [in a university] without seeing someone to set the path. And second, the U.S. is falling behind in our production of scientists and engineers. We need every person in the nation who has a love of science and technology.What do you think your appointment as president of MIT will mean to young women?I'm hoping it will give confidence to girls and young women that there are opportunities that will be open to them that they can't imagine right now.