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STUDENT CYBERJOCKS WITH TOO MANY STARS IN THEIR EYES?

High school basketball stars aren't the only ones eager to jump straight to the pros and earn the big bucks. Now cyberjocks want to take the plunge, too. Take Joseph Smarr, who'll be a freshman at Stanford University next fall.

Smarr plans to study computer programming, but his dad Larry worries that well before his four years are up, Joseph will fall under the cyber-spell of Marc Andreessen and the Internet and will leave school. Smarr has good reason to worry: As the director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the renowned Urbana (Ill.) research bastion where Andreessen got his start, he's seen it happen plenty of times. "They have stars in their eyes," Smarr says of the current crop of young programmers. "I tell Joseph it's important to get your four years of education before you do your IPO. But he says: 'Dad, I'll be left behind.'"

Andreessen got his undergraduate degree in computer science before he bolted NCSA and the University of Illinois four years ago to seek his fortune in Silicon Valley. But some scientists and executives fear that Andreessen's well-publicized successes at Netscape Communications Corp. are leading bright college students to abandon their studies too early. That could end up hurting them later--if it turns out they need a degree. And, if the best and brightest minds leave academe and research for commercial pursuits, it's a potential threat to the country's technological competitiveness.

'PICKING THE PLUMS.' Already, academic and computer-industry leaders fret that the pool of university-bred computing talent is evaporating. Bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science declined 41%, from a peak of 26,791 in 1984, to a 12-year low of 24,553 in 1994, according to the National Science Foundation -- though there has been a slight uptick since then. And the number of doctorates awarded in computer science and computer engineering has remained flat though the 1990s at about 1,000 per year -- while demand for these grads has soared in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. "The pool of engineering and technical people hasn't grown, so companies are picking the plums out and then stealing from each other," says Becky Morgan," executive director of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, an industry/government consortium focused on maintaining the Valley's competitiveness.

In an attempt to head off trouble, Stanford University engineering Dean John Hennessey urges companies that participate in the undergraduate internship program to be patient and wait until people graduate and are fully trained before recruiting them. "We tell them it's not in their best interests to grab people before they graduate. It's not professional basketball," he says.

Smarr's concerns go beyond his son's welfare. He needs to hold on to top researchers at NCSA, the federally funded institution that has been a hotbed of academic computer-science innovation for more than a decade. Andreessen lured away a half-dozen of NCSA's top programmers when he launched Netscape. And other technology companies are cherry-picking, too. "We can't keep anybody in university computer-science departments because of this startup phenomenon," gripes Smarr.

THE NEXT REVOLUTION? He doesn't get much sympathy from James Clark, co-founder of Netscape with Andreessen and a former professor at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. Clark agrees that perhaps too many bright researchers are being lured away right now, but he says the trend will reverse as soon as the high-tech industry goes into a downturn. Plus, "There will always be people like Larry Smarr who don't want to make a buck. They just want to change the world."

But Smarr isn't the only one who's worried about the research brain drain. John Doerr, the venture capitalist who backed Netscape, is lobbying the federal government to boost research funding. His point: It was thanks to NCSA that Andreessen got the opportunity to create the first popular Web browser -- launching the Internet revolution. If the next innovations don't come from academe, where will they come from? "The marketplace is now harvesting the research that has been done over the past 20 years," says Michael Rappa, a consultant to the Presidential Advisory Committee for High-Performance Computing, which is studying these issues. "We're depleting the seed corn that we'll want to harvest 10 years from now."

That's no small issue. But as long as Silicon Valley beckons, it's going to be just as tough for universities to keep bright programmers as it is for them to hold on to their best ball players.

By Steve Hamm in San Mateo, Calif.



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