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APS Releases New Report: Building America’s STEM Workforce

February 8, 2021 | Tawanda W. Johnson

APS has released a new report that provides recommendations to strengthen the nation’s STEM workforce, including building research capacity among emerging research institutions (ERIs), establishing a clear path for international talent to study and work in the US, confronting hostile work environments, and addressing the shortage of qualified STEM teachers.

Titled “Building America’s STEM Workforce: Eliminating Barriers and Unlocking Advantages,” the report examines both domestic and international challenges and opportunities. It synthesizes a range of public data and reports—complemented with surveys of physics department chairs and APS members and recommends several federal actions related to building America’s STEM workforce.

“This report comes at a critical juncture in our world—a time in which the United States is on the verge of losing its most crucial asset—talented human capital—as its sluggishness in addressing challenges amid increased global competition puts America in a precarious position,” said APS President S. James Gates, Jr. “Our report lays the foundation for real, viable solutions to these issues.”

Domestic Workforce Challenges and Opportunities

According to the report, the country needs to do a better job in attracting women, racial and ethnic minorities, and rural Americans to the US scientific and technical workforce, noting the importance of diversity in boosting innovation and productivity. One way to achieve that goal: expand opportunities to participate in research—a known high-impact practice for workforce strengthening and diversification—to students from underrepresented groups.

STEM workforce figure

To do so, the report recommends increasing research capacity among ERIs—including minority-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, historically Black colleges and universities, and regional colleges and universities with smaller research activities—institutions that historically lag in federal R&D funding behind major research-intensive institutions. In 2018, for example, of the 637 universities that received federal R&D funding in science and engineering, the top 22% of universities received 90% of the funding. ERIs received only 10% of the funding, despite serving 57% of all students attending those institutions. Further, ERIs served 68% of Pell Grant recipients and 66% of underrepresented minority students.

To provide research opportunities more broadly, federal agencies can expand research capacity by encouraging and enabling meaningful partnerships between the nation’s top research universities and ERIs. Additionally, federal agencies should encourage more research proposals directly from ERIs, track statistics on awards to ERIs, and conduct a comprehensive portfolio analysis of the awards for ERIs to help identify best practices and methodologies for increasing funding to these institutions. The report notes that the solution is not to reduce the funding of top universities, but to increase overall R&D investments while adjusting distributions to make them more equitable.

The report also concludes that hostile work environments must be addressed to keep the nation on a path to success. In addition to unequal access to research opportunities and training, studies show that there are systemic and cultural aspects of the current R&D ecosystem, especially for women and people from underrepresented minority groups, that detract from an inclusive and productive career environment. The United States must also significantly increase the number of qualified high school STEM teachers, who are critical to creating the 21st century workforce needed to maintain America’s global leadership.

International Workforce Challenges and Opportunities

The report also considers the international component of the US STEM workforce. In particular, outdated visa and immigration policies that dissuade, rather than attract, international talent must also change to bolster the US STEM workforce and strengthen the nation’s S&T enterprise. For instance, recent federal policies have limited the opportunities for foreign-born scientists and engineers to come to the United States.

To address the issue, APS conducted surveys and gathered testimonials from both domestic and international members to better understand the detrimental effects those policies are having on the country’s ability to attract and retain talented international students and scholars. The solutions, according to the report, are to allow international students applying for an F-1 visa to indicate they would like to stay in the United States after graduation, and provide international students who earn advanced STEM degrees from US institutions a clear path to a green card should they choose to stay and work in the country after graduation. The report points out that addressing issues related to both domestic and international students is essential to getting the nation back on a solid footing as an S&T global leader.

Recommendations

“These aren’t small challenges, but they’re also not insurmountable,” said Mark Elsesser, Interim Director of the APS Office of Government Affairs. “In fact, our report highlights a series of actionable recommendations—many of which do not require additional resources—that, if implemented, would help foster a more robust and diverse STEM workforce, which is essential to the United States maintaining its global leadership in S&T.”

The report specifically outlines the following recommendations:

Broadening Opportunities by Building Research Capacity

  • The solution is not to reduce funding to research-intensive institutions. Instead, we must increase our R&D investments overall, while also adjusting their distribution.
  • Agencies should enable and incentivize our top research universities to create meaningful lasting partnerships that strengthen the research capacity at emerging research institutions, including minority-serving institutions (MSIs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and the colleges and universities with smaller research activities, which are often in underserved states. To facilitate a large participant pool, these partnerships should not be limited geographically.
  • Agencies should strongly encourage research proposals directly from emerging research institutions.
  • Agencies should track statistics on awards to emerging research institutions.
  • Agencies should conduct a comprehensive portfolio analysis of the awards for emerging research institutions and identify best practices and methodologies for increasing funding to these institutions. The report recommends that federal agencies provide funding to expand and sustain high-quality STEM teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities, similar to the NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Program Capacity Building grants.

International Workforce

  • Allow international students applying for an F-1 visa to indicate they would like to stay in the United States after graduation.
  • Provide international students who earn advanced STEM degrees from US institutions a clear path to a green card should they choose to stay and work in the United States after graduation.

Improving Inclusivity in Laboratories and Work Environments

  • Congress should reintroduce and pass the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2019.
  • Agencies should adopt and implement policies consistent with the NSF’s update of terms and conditions: Sexual Harassment, Other Forms of Harassment, or Sexual Assault.

Increasing Qualified STEM Teachers

  • Provide federal agencies the funding necessary to expand and sustain high-quality STEM teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities, similar to the NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Program Capacity Building grants.
  • Provide federal agencies the funding necessary to increase teacher preparation scholarships and fellowships, such as the NSF Robert Noyce Teacher scholarships and fellowships grants, and expand teacher student loan forgiveness to appropriate levels that address the magnitude of the US STEM teacher shortage.

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