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The Price of Panic

The House of Representatives' failure to promptly pass the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill has caused much dismay among lobbyists and executives at American high-tech companies. For people who care about the future of American science, however, the delay is fortuitous: It allowed time for an outstanding and important new book to arrive on the scene before Congress makes the scientific labor market even worse.

Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, by preeminent science labor market expert Michael S. Teitelbaum, brings desperately needed clarity and context to a crucial issue: the nation's much-ballyhooed but essentially fictitious "shortage" of scientific talent. Drawing on Teitelbaum's decades of experience with labor and migration issues—as academic researcher, congressional committee staff director, official at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, member and acting chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, and participant in countless study groups—the book applies subtle analysis and encyclopedic knowledge to the task of understanding the dynamics of the scientific labor market. The book arrives just as well-financed public relations and lobbying campaigns, which for years have skillfully molded public opinion and national policy on this topic, are gearing up once more.

The alarms about widespread shortages and shortfalls in the number of U.S. scientists and engineers are inconsistent with nearly all available evidence.

—Michael Teitelbaum

Every politician, policymaker, advocate, and ordinary citizen who wants to understand the reality and the genuine challenges currently facing American research and researchers—in contrast to those who aspire only to mindlessly repeat misleading and self-serving slogans about innovation and productivity—should read and absorb what Teitelbaum terms as his book's "core findings:"

  • "[T]he alarms about widespread shortages or shortfalls in the number of U.S. scientists and engineers are quite inconsistent with nearly all available evidence;
  • "[S]imilar claims of the past were politically successful but resulted in a series of booms and busts that did harm to the U.S. science and engineering enterprise and made careers in these fields increasingly unattractive; and
  • "[T]he clear signs of malaise in the U.S. science and engineering workforce are structural in origin and cannot be cured simply by providing additional funding. To the contrary, recent efforts of this kind have proved to be destabilizing, and advocates should be careful what they wish for."

Hence, reform to that system is needed, but policymakers must be cautious so as to avoid making things worse.

Recurring cycles

Teitelbaum recounts the history of the debate over the adequacy of America's scientific labor force, stretching back to the years just after World War II.

He identifies five historic cycles of "alarm/boom/bust," each starting with a panic about the nation's research enterprise losing ground to some ominous foreign adversary. Next comes drastic government action that overshoots real needs, leading to hard times for many of the technically and scientifically trained. From the arms race sparked in 1948 by the Soviet atomic bomb through the space race unleashed by Sputnik and intensified by President John F. Kennedy's fake "missile gap"—right up to the latest dire communiqués from the lords of Silicon Valley and Seattle—these anxiety extravaganzas have advanced the fortunes of narrow economic interests. And each has been based on exaggerated claims of American inadequacy.

While the Soviet Union lasted, it served as the bogeyman, scaring Congress and Americans into enormous expenditures not only on defense but also on addressing perceived deficiencies in our scientific prowess, which, the argument went, threatened America's ability to prevail in the struggle to preserve and spread freedom. Teitelbaum doesn't argue that the Soviet system posed no danger to the United States; he argues, rather, that the nation was never at risk of losing its scientific lead.

Courtesy of Princeton University Press

Once the threat of communism vanished, attention shifted to the looming threat posed by newly prosperous countries that were increasingly active in science and would surely soon displace America as the world's most innovative and prosperous technological power. Teitelbaum doesn't argue that rivals such as China pose no competition; rather, he shows that the United States remains the world's leading scientific and technical power by far. Advancing at a slower statistical rate than competitors whose big percentage gains reflect their low initial baselines does not, he notes, constitute decline.

The interests that benefit from federal science funding and policies—from the agencies and firms that President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex" to today's technology companies (which want immigration policies that restrain wages) and universities (which are dependent on federal grants and steady flows of international students and postdocs)—repeatedly deploy fear of decay and defeat, a tactic that has long served them effectively and reliably. Teitelbaum's deep understanding of how Washington works shines in his dissection of the massive lobbying campaigns that have once again convinced the media and much of the political class that the United States faces a new shortfall of scientific talent.

Teitelbaum also examines the failure of the organizations that ostensibly represent America's scientists, engineers, and technical workers to mount even the puniest defense of those workers' interests. This dereliction leaves "the advocates of shortage claims … nearly an open field in politics and the media," he writes. So complete is the advocates' victory that, to cite one of countless examples, the Los Angeles Times breathlessly reported in February on a conference where Teitelbaum "finally cast a more critical eye" on shortage claims. Finally? He and other experts have been skewering shortage claims for decades, presenting hard evidence on television news shows, before congressional committees, and at scholarly conferences.

Changing the conversation

Fascinating and revealing nuggets stud the book, displaying the depth and originality of Teitelbaum's research:

  • The cost of real estate—not a shortage of tech workers—explains why top tech companies find it hard to attract Americans to jobs in one of the nation's most expensive housing markets.
  • E-mail discussions by Elena Kagan from when she was working at the Clinton White House—released during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings—show how lobbyists managed to defeat a White House plan to require employers to prove that they cannot find qualified Americans before allowing in foreign workers on H-1B visas. Intense lobbying torpedoed the provision, even though the requirement would be painless if there were in fact a dearth of suitable American applicants.
  • In perhaps the book's most fascinating tidbit, Teitelbaum shows that the Soviet Union didn't beat the United States into space with Sputnik—not, at least, in the sense of surpassing America's technical capacities. Rather, the United States held off on launching the first artificial satellite to allow the Soviets to establish a new legal principle, that satellite overflights do not constitute an invasion of nations' sovereign air space. Sputnik, then, allowed the United States to carry out its plan to deploy satellites equipped for espionage with no fear of challenges under international law.

A review of this length can offer only a taste of the insight, information, and astute judgment that Teitelbaum brings to bear on the history, structure, prospects, and very real current problems of the U.S. scientific enterprise. Some ideas will be familiar to Science Careers readers, but the book's precise exposition and granular detail make it valuable even for those who already are well versed.

For the much larger number of people who are concerned about American science but unfamiliar with the dynamics and history of the scientific labor market, this book will be revelatory. Can strong evidence and clear thinking overcome decades of lavish propaganda? Probably not, but if it can, Teitelbaum's book should transform this important national conversation.