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Doing the Numbers

When, in Science and Engineering Indicators, 2004, the National Science Board (NSB) analyzed the latest available data on scientific employment, investment, and training, they drew the same conclusion that they had drawn months earlier (in The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential): that America needs more native-born scientists. This conclusion was based, in part, on data that indicated flat or declining enrollment of U.S.-born students in science and engineering programs. Yet even as NSB was putting the final touches on Indicators, 2004, more recent data were being compiled and analyzed by the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) statisticians. Released in July as an NSF "info brief," these newer data show that the enrollment of U.S.-born students in graduate science and engineering programs has increased dramatically since 1999.

NSB's Alarming Message

"In preparing Indicators 2004," wrote the board in A Companion to Science and Engineering Indicators, 2004, "we have observed a troubling decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers, whereas the number of jobs requiring science and engineering (S&E) training continues to grow." This, along with a potentially unstable supply of foreign talent, a predicted increase in the rate of retirements, and a rapid growth of science- and technology-related jobs, caused NSB to worry that America was becoming vulnerable, economically, to fluctuations in the supply of foreign scientists. "We must develop more fully our native talent to meet opportunities and needs of the workforce--capitalizing on and expanding successful efforts undertaken throughout our society."

Bad News Is Good News

Although both reports express grave concern about the long-term U.S. scientific labor supply, they imply a rosy future for scientists in the United States and abroad. "For international students and workers, attractive and competitive alternatives are emerging around the world," writes the board in Realizing America's Potential. If the board is right and the global demand outstrips the supply, the result would be higher salaries and better working conditions for scientists everywhere. Scientists could expect more abundant job choices and better salaries and benefits. And with scarcity comes prestige: Science would come to be viewed as a more notable and noble career than it is today. Scientific careers would have greater appeal, and more young people would choose science.

But Is It True?

Is a worldwide shortage of scientists just around the corner? Can today's early career scientists and science trainees look forward to a bright and lucrative future? The answer may depend to some extent on what field you're in, but there's no real reason to think so.

Field Dependence

In the 21st century, there's no such thing as a scientific generalist. Scientific openings call for particular kinds of scientists...molecular biologists, say, typically with a subspecialty specified; often an extraordinary amount of specialization is required. Furthermore, jobs vary by degree level: scientists with bachelor's degrees can't compete for faculty jobs, and jobs open to bachelor's-degree scientists are rarely filled by Ph.D. scientists. Job opportunities also vary dramatically by industry sector and geography.

In 2003, the Rand Corporation convened a conference on behalf of the Sloan Foundation and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The conference resulted in a report--not yet published but expected soon-- The U.S. Scientific and Technical Workforce: Improving Data for Decisionmaking. In his contribution to the report, Michael Horrigan, assistant commissioner in the Office for Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demonstrated that labor shortages may exist in one subfield but not in another and that careful analysis is required to determine which is which.

Horrigan analyzed six engineering fields, all of which had seen significant wage increases in recent years, which might be interpreted as indicating a labor shortage. But Horrigan's analysis determined that in three of the six fields the labor supply reacted robustly to wage increases, indicating that no real shortage exists. Preliminary evidence of a labor shortage--a sluggish response to increasing wages--exists in the remaining three fields, yet a closer look reveals that one of them--aerospace engineering--probably doesn't have a real, long-term shortage. Even in the two fields with strongest evidence of a labor shortage--mechanical and industrial engineering--the evidence is ambiguous and should be weighed with caution, Horrigan concludes.

Data Dependence

Like the conference itself, the Rand report ranges widely, but there is near consensus on certain key points: that any attempts to assess labor-market supply-and-demand imbalances require a careful, analytical approach; that it isn't easy to recognize a shortage, much less to predict one; and that right now we lack the data needed to do either.

The Rand report concludes that, although adequate data and accurate assessments of labor market conditions are important for many different parties, early career and prospective scientists are especially vulnerable. "Employers and managers who lack a credible information base produced by statistical experts," writes the Rand conference rapporteur in the report's conclusion, "may base decisions on information and analyses that they themselves have produced, often on the fly, or that are produced by others lacking statistical expertise." For them life goes on as before; trainees are the real victims:

Administrators of science funding agencies who lack such information may base funding allocations across scientific disciplines on judgments about where the science is most exciting or where other support is lacking, to the detriment of students encouraged toward fields, however exciting, without waiting jobs. ... Among all these decisionmakers, students and workers are the most disadvantaged, for they typically command insufficient resources to uncover any but the most rudimentary information about trends in potentially interesting fields. And yet, ironically, it is they who bear the largest burden of mistaken decisions--lengthy training and uncertain outcomes, job insecurity, and potential disillusionment with the scientific enterprise.

Doing the Numbers

Superficial analyses yield superficial results; yet a glance at the numbers can be illuminating, especially when the data seem to contradict widespread assumptions.

* Degree production is actually on the rise, not flat or declining. A "Data Brief" issued last month by NSF included 2002 data on enrollment in science graduate degree programs, data that, presumably, were not available to NSB when it issued Indicators, 2004. The new data show a strong reversal in the downward (or flat) trend in the enrollment of native-born Americans in science and engineering programs, at least at the graduate level, with gains each year since 1999. Enrollment reached an all-time high of 455,400, fully 6% above the previous high reached back in 1993. That's a huge increase--14%--over 2001. The number of postdocs, too, reached an all-time high in 2002, at 32,100, up 6% from the previous year's all-time high.

* Graduate enrollments are increasing in all fields of science, but in certain fields the increase is dramatic. In 2002, enrollment in graduate engineering programs was up 9.2% compared with the previous year's enrollment. Biomedical engineering saw a 20% leap in enrollment. Enrollment in mathematical sciences was up 9.1%. Atmospheric sciences increased by 12.1%. The latest data can be found at NSF's Web site.

* Enrollment of foreign grad students may be declining. But it's too soon to know for sure. In 2002, latest data and the first since 9/11, the number of foreign students enrolled in U.S. science and engineering graduate programs increased by 8% to a new, all-time high. But new foreign graduate student enrollment was down 8% over the previous year's enrollment.

* If there's action anywhere, it's at the undergraduate level. Jobs for scientists and engineers have increased nearly four times as fast as jobs not requiring a science degree, but almost all of these jobs were held by people with B.S. degrees. The data for 2002 on undergraduate enrollment in science and engineering degree programs isn't available yet.

* There's no reason to expect the academic job market to improve. Even the older data indicate a stagnant academic job market. "Barring changes in degree production, retirement behavior, or foreign participation," writes the board in Indicators, 2004, "there appear to be sufficient numbers of new doctorate holders to replace retiring incumbents and allow for some growth." Rising enrollments in graduate science degree programs and relatively flat federal spending on academic science mean that, if anything, the academic job market is likely to get worse in the coming years.

So What Should You Do?

As Neils Bohr--not Yogi Berra--once said, prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. The future may indeed be bright for young scientists; a global boom in science may indeed lead to labor shortages and enhancement of salaries, working conditions, and prestige. But there's no reason to think so. Even the coarse, superficial analysis supported by currently available data doesn't predict a shortage of scientific labor. And the data that would be needed to accurately assess current labor market conditions and predict future shortages don't exist yet. And no one--not even the National Science Board--is predicting a shortage of academic scientists.

The decision whether or not to go into science is a personal decision, as it always has been. If you love doing science and excel at it, a happy future doing science is likely but far from assured. If you're not sure what you want to do with your life and are looking to science as a safe choice, you can probably do better. Scientific training will undoubtedly enhance your problem-solving skills, and the experiences you have as a science trainee may well be positive. But if it's security you crave, you can probably do better.