The global semiconductor shortage has grabbed headlines and caused a cascade of production bottlenecks that have driven up prices on all sorts of consumer goods, from refrigerators to SUVs. The chip shortage has thrown into sharp relief the critical role semiconductors play in many aspects of everyday life.
But years before the pandemic-induced shortage took hold, the United States was already facing a growing chip crisis. Its longstanding dominance in microelectronics innovation and manufacturing has been eroding over the past several decades in the face of stepped-up international competition. Now, reasserting U.S. leadership in microelectronics has become a priority for both industry and government, not just for economic reasons but also as a matter of national security.
In a new white paper, a group of MIT researchers argue that the country's strategy for reasserting its place as a semiconductor superpower must heavily involve universities, which are uniquely positioned to pioneer new technology and train a highly skilled workforce. Their report, "Reasserting U.S. Leadership in Microelectronics," lays out a series of recommendations for how universities can play a leading role in the national effort to reattain global preeminence in semiconductor research and manufacturing.
"In this national quest to regain leadership in microelectronics manufacturing, it was clear to us that universities should play a major role. We wanted to think from scratch about how universities can best contribute to this important effort," says Jesús del Alamo, the Donner Professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the leading author of the white paper. "Our goal is that, when these national programs are constructed, they are built in a well-balanced way, taking advantage of the tremendous resources and talent that American universities can bring to bear."
[...] Reasserting leadership in semiconductor manufacturing will also require thousands of new highly skilled workers, and universities contribute a sizable fraction of the workforce for the industry. Expanding the size and diversity of this workforce will be key, but educational institutions face an uphill battle as more students abandon "hard tech" for fields like computer science. Attracting more students will require exciting hands-on lab courses, inspiring research experiences, well-crafted internships, and support from industry mentors, as well as fellowships at all levels, among many other initiatives.
"We are already in a situation where we are not producing enough engineers at all levels for the semiconductor industry, and we are talking about a major expansion. So, it just doesn't add up," del Alamo says. "If we want to provide the workforce for this major expansion, we need to engage more students. The only way, in the short term, to provide many more graduates for this industry is expanding existing programs and engaging institutions that have not been involved in the past."