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A Shortage of Scientists and Engineers?

The National Science Board (NSB), the governing body of the National Science Foundation (NSF), analyzed national science and engineering (S&E) workforce trends and recommended policy directions in its recent report, The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential . According to the NSB report, "It is beyond dispute that society is--and will become even more--dependent on science and technology," and therefore must "depend on a cadre of individuals with a high level of scientific training and education."

The numbers of foreign-born workers in S&E increased from 14% to 22% from 1990 to 2000--with increasingly higher percentages at higher degree levels, while U.S. citizens earned fewer S&E bachelor's degrees from 1985 to 2000. However, during the 2003 academic year there was a 27% drop in State Department-issued student visas.1 This drop in foreign talent may be seen in a September General Accounting Office report. It noted that "H-1B visas for the IT industry dropped by 25% from 2000 to 2002 and the overall use of the H-1B program has declined consistent with the country's general economic downturn." White males with S&E doctorates in particular also experienced declining numbers with 9262 being awarded in 1980 to 8138 in 1999.2

With the aforementioned problems, coupled with expected retirements and the projected demand for scientists and engineers--one must ask is the US in trouble? That depends on whom you believe.

Where are we now?

Data from a 1999 NSF report, Characteristics of Recent Science and Engineering Graduates, disputed the S&E shortage by reporting that 68% of those with S&E baccalaureates and masters were working in non-S&E fields in 1997.2 However, some observers attribute S&E losses to higher enrollments in professional schools. According to independent immigration researcher David North's testimony on a house subcomitte on immigration, Ph.D.s in science and engineering are not paid as well as JDs, MBAs, and particularly MDs; therefore, many consider other career options.3

Approximately twice as many undergraduate biology majors enter medical school than graduate school, says the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Web site. 4 This is especially true for underrepresented minorities who, between 1995 and 1997, earned 3.1 times more medical degrees than all S&E doctorates combined compared to 1.2 times more for whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders.2 It is true that salaries of some medical occupations are twice that of S&E professorships, according the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The rate of participation of minorities in science in engineering is so low often because the rewards are so little in relation to the sacrifices required," says Sonya Summerour Clemmons, founder of SSC Enterprises and MiSciNet columnist. The NSB report acknowledged these sacrifices as "costs to the students in lost opportunities they might otherwise have pursued, the quality of life during the educational period, and the debt burden incurred while pursuing a degree." Yet the board lacked a plan to recoup the loss in potential earnings to S&E workers other than increasing graduate stipends to lessen the rising student-loan debt. "I don't know of any strategies that we can really put into place that will make salaries more competitive," said George M. Langford, chair of NSB's Education and Human Resources Committee.

How did we get here?

In the recent past there was no need to make salaries competitive. The disproportionately high number of nonresident alien S&E workers effectively lowered wages and stipends, which lowered research costs and wages, according to a report by Alan Fechter and Michael Teitelbaum5 and another report by David North.3 (Fechter is president of the board of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology and Teitelbaum is vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.) Some hold the NSF culpable for the nation's dependence on foreign scientists and engineers. "The NSF has consistently supported the importation of foreign graduate students by various means and pushed for the establishment of the H-1B program in 1990," says Keith Jackson, president of the National Society for Black Physicists. H-1B is the work visa often used by universities to secure faculty and other researchers from abroad.

In his congressional testimony, David North talked about two sets of foreign-born S&E workers in the U.S. The first are the "real elite" nonresident graduate students who usually receive more university or federal funding and better pay than do otherwise equivalent Americans in industry and academia. The second group is typically lower-profile engineers and computer programmers who are "often exploited, and are often used to shove aside American workers," said North.3

What does it mean for minorities?

Why look at minorities now? Dr. Clemmons thinks training and hiring domestic minority scientists and engineers would fulfill the nation's future S&E workforce requirements. With nearly all of the internal S&E doctorate growth attributable to women and minorities, these two groups should be able to fill the gap. Despite the increases of minority doctorates, "there is not a real commitment to hire the plethora of minorities and women who are already trained in science and engineering," according to Clemmons, because of "continual discriminatory practices that suppress participation of minorities in the workforce."

How do we solve this? What needs to be done

The board recommends creating partnerships between businesses and educational institutions to prepare students, primarily trained for academia, for entrance into the private sector. Clemmons recommends creating a "task force, including myself and other like minded individuals, to figure out ways to make it attractive for business to start helping out with training a minority workforce and hiring them into all levels of an organization, not just the lower ranks."

In my opinion, NSB's recommendations are conceptually positive, but lack specifics in logistics and implementation. Although the board claims that specific issues must be addressed, they claim they are "outside the scope of this study." If that is the case, what was the purpose of the S&E workforce report? Clemmons believes that "the problems have been overanalyzed and the solutions under-implemented," while Jackson has a simple solution. "You could end the problem immediately by requiring that research assistantships funded by the federal government only be used to support U.S. citizens." Whatever course of action we take, I hope we can reap the benefits of investing in talent right here at home.


  • Locking Out the Brainpower?, Josef Joffe, Washington Post (23 November 2003)

  • Characteristics of Recent Science and Engineering Graduates: 1999, National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics (June 2003)

  • Testimony on H.R. 1915, The Immigration in the National Interest Act, By David S. North, To Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives

  • Beyond Bio 101: The Transformation of Undergraduate Biology Education, A Report from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

  • Issues in Science and Technology, Fetcher and Teitelbaum, "A fresh approach to immigration," Spring 1997, pp 28-32.

  • Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and can be reached at

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