The United States is facing a science and engineering catastrophe of its own making.

Here’s the vexing thing: Everybody (with the possible exception of a few sociologists at Duke University) seems to know it. Trouble is, many of our leaders–in government, private industry, and higher education–seem to be running away from the obvious solutions as fast as they can. In some cases, they’re actively sabotaging solutions. It’s downright baffling.

Case in point: One of the only things that worked last year in New Orleans was the 90-year-old pumping system. It was designed in the early 1900s by Albert Baldwin Wood, a student from Tulane University’s School of Engineering. Last summer–after the more modern levees crumbled, after the Superdome buckled–those ancient pumps kept chugging, faithfully pushing flood water out of the city. In fact, that student-designed pumping system worked so well that recovery efforts–such as they were–were able to begin much sooner than anticipated. In making their recovery calculations, the Army Corps of Engineers simply hadn’t factored in the efficiency and stamina of those old pumps.

Shortly after the storm, Scott S. Cowen, president of Tulane, announced the termination of engineering studies at his university. The fact that Cowen heads the education committee of the city’s Bring Back New Orleans commission (see page 16) gives one pause.

“We survived Katrina, but not the administration,” protested distraught engineering students, some 900 of whom now face an uncertain academic future.

“I admire their compassion and their enthusiasm to keep this going,” said Cowen of the engineering students. “But,” he said, adding the most lethal words in education, “the board has already made its decisions . . . .”

The Tulane board is not alone by any means. Widely cited statistics claim the United States produced 70,000 engineers in 2004, compared to 600,000 for China and 350,000 for India.

Duke University’s Department of Sociology issued a rebuttal not long ago, as reported in Education Week. The study argued that when the comparisons match four-year engineering degrees and when U.S. information technology and computer science graduates are counted in, the U.S. in 2004 actually produced 137,000 graduates versus 351,500 in China and 112,000 in India.

It’s important to be accurate in these things. So if you find it reassuring that America is still clinging to the slimmest of leads over India in the development of engineers and computer scientists and is being out-produced by China by only 3 to 1, I guess you can rest easy now.

Me, I’m losing sleep. As David Rothkopf writes in his new book Running the World, we’re on the “hinge between the American Century and the Chinese Century.” If you ask me, the door on that hinge is swinging. And it’s about to hit America in the assets–namely in our rapidly evaporating pool of fresh science and engineering talent.

Major universities and multinational technology corporations seem quite able to tell which way the door is swinging, too. Increasingly, India is the beneficiary.

Fifteen top American universities reportedly have entered into an agreement with India’s engineering and university system to provide courses via satellite. The courses will be designed by faculty at the American universities–including Harvard and Princeton–and are scheduled to include subjects such as material sciences, manufacturing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and medical sciences. The U.S. faculty also will teach and guide engineering research for India’s Amrita University and the Indian Space Research Organization.

“In the long run,” Balu Doraisamy, a Hewlett-Packard executive in New Delhi, was quoted as saying by the Indian press, “this could increase opportunities for the generation of intellectual property in India,”

Other major U.S.-based companies are supportive, too. Intel recently announced it will invest $1 billion in India over the next five years for a research and development center. Microsoft says it plans to invest $1.7 billion in India over the next four years, with about half the money going to Microsoft’s research and development center in Hyderabad in southern India.

In America, government leaders, university presidents, and U.S.-based multinational corporations are standing idle or abetting the competition as one of our greatest resources disappears. The rest of the world is rushing in to fill the void.

Chinese language studies are big in the U.S. right now (see page 18), and it’s a good thing. If we do become a colony of China, as the pundits increasingly predict, it’ll be nice to speak the language.

Or, perhaps we might want to reverse course. Helping other nations has historically been an American virtue. But when it comes to science and engineering education, now might be the perfect moment to do something genuinely old-fashioned for a change: Put America first.