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National Science Board: Getting It Wrong Again?

By Roman Czujko

During the week of May 10th, the National Science Board (NSB) announced two new reports: the 2004 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators (a biennial publication) and a companion piece titled An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force. I highly recommend the Indicators to anyone who wants to understand the trends in science and engineering both in the US and abroad.

The following are a few remarks on the three basic issues raised by the NSB in their report. You can read or download a copy of this report at: http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/nsb0407/start.htm.

First, the NSB states that they "have observed a troubling decline in the number of US citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers." I have examined the data carefully and I see a very different pattern than the one they describe. Each of the S&E fields has been declining and increasing at different points and at different rates. In fact, the total number of bachelor's awarded in the natural sciences and engineering combined (life sciences, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences) has increased by about 18% over the last decade, an even larger increase than during the decade of the 1980's. Similarly, even if we exclude the biological sciences because of their startling growth rate during the 1990's (54%), we still see that 10,000 more students (7%) earned bachelors in the physical sciences, engineering, and computer science combined in 2001 than in 1991. Where is the declining number?

Second, the NSB reports that "the number of jobs in the US economy that require science and engineering training will grow." The NSB's assumptions are based on projections developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While projections of future demand are always fragile at best, these are particularly problematic.

The BLS projections were developed before the recent "dot com bust," and their projected increase in total S&E demand was driven largely by their assumptions about the continued high growth rate in the computer science and IT workforce.

In addition, the NSB appears to have ignored problems in the current S&E job market. The data for the first quarter of 2004 recently released by the BLS indicate that unemployment for electrical engineers is 5.3%, for computer scientists and systems analysts is 6.7%, and for computer programmers is at 9.0%. These data are troubling for the physics community since most physics bachelors who enter the labor force after graduation usually find employment in engineering and the IT workforce.

Third, the NSB is concerned that "the availability of people from other countries who have science and engineering training will decline." They cite visa problems for students and S&E workers as well as global competition for people with these skills. Regarding the latter, the NSB notes that many developed countries have increased investment in S&E education and research jobs at a much faster rate than the US, and the US now lags behind both Europe and Asia in the total number of S&E doctorates awarded.

I generally agree with this part of the report and believe that, in the near future, the S&E enterprise in the US may well face increased international competition at the advanced degree level.

Encouraging US citizens to pursue engineering and science careers is a noble goal. I believe that scientists and engineers make an essential contribution to economic development, health, and national security. However, the NSB based their arguments on flawed analyses and they ignored the current economic realities, e.g. virtually every state is experiencing severe budget problems. I fear that this report comes very close to emulating the unfounded cries of shortage that emanated from the NSF about 16 years ago.

I remember when the scientists and engineers graduated during the bleak economic times of the early 1990's. Many of them turned their anger against the members of the community who, just a few years earlier, had led them to believe there was an impending shortage.

More importantly, their disappointment and distrust turned many potential students away from graduate study in engineering and the physical sciences.

I think we can do better than to unrealistically raise expectations of the next generation of scientists and engineers. If the NSB truly believe in the value of science and engineering, then let them lead the push for a broad R&D investment strategy in academe, government, and the private sector to ensure both that we will have more graduates and that those graduates will have an increased likelihood of finding employment.

Roman Czujko is the Director of the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics.

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