For some time, there has been a deep worry in the U.S. that we are quickly losing our lead in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) fields of study to up-and-coming foreign rivals, particularly Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, India and, the one that gets the most attention now, China. China, for example, has been producing hundreds or thousands, if not millions, of scientists and engineers over the past decade, as their economic growth has been on a steep ascension for many years. The U.S. has been producing tens of thousands of scientists and engineers. Certainly, simply looking at the 'production' numbers, we have a need to worry about the future prospects of the U.S. maintaining its clear lead in STEM areas since World War II.
Furthermore, the 2005 report from the National Academies, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, was a tipping point for policy makers to lead a new charge into pushing for the production of more STEM graduates and a larger workforce to keep up with developing nations. But while the production numbers of the U.S. cannot compare to those in a country like China, is this the right number to be concerned about? Do we have a shortage of STEM talent, graduates, and workers, or are there other data to help mold a more accurate picture of where we are at the top levels of STEM fields to remain competitive and in a lead position for our economic growth and national security?
An analysis of such questions is done in the Miller-McCune story, The Real Science Gap. It argues that, if one looks at the whole picture, we do not have a shortage in numbers of PhD level STEM graduates, but rather we have no system in place to ensure that these graduates have appropriate research jobs when they graduate. For example, many are now saying there is, in reality, not nearly enough tenure-track faculty positions in American universities to accommodate the graduate students and postdocs in the pipeline. Such positions are the goal of most students who enter PhD programs, and such positions largely drive the pure research that takes place in the country to make scientific advancements. For the relatively small number of tenure-track positions that open up during the course of a year, many hundreds of candidates apply for those jobs. What used to be 1-2 year postdoc positions now extend into 3-6 year postdoc positions. I am familiar with several cases of this as I came up through a PhD program some fifteen years ago, and met a number of postdocs who were having trouble finding faculty positions. It is clear that many industry jobs for STEM graduates have been lost to out-sourcing and to the economic issues of the recession. A question becomes, will STEM jobs lost to the recession still be there as a recovery takes place? That remains to be seen as companies reorganize and develop updated strategies for their future research and development efforts.
There was a second report published by the National Academies in 2005 that I was not aware of, entitled Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Researchers in Biological Research. This study reported that the average age of scientists who won their first NIH grant, went from the high twenties several decades ago to 42. This is a telling signal that many scientists are not becoming faculty with their own labs until they are significantly older than what used to be the case. And there is an argument to be made that an age such as 42 is already beyond the most productive and creative intellectual ages of one's twenties and thirties.
Here is a telling set of statistics from The Real Science Gap article:
"In fact, three times as many Americans earn degrees in science and engineering each year as can find work in those fields, Science & Engineering Indicators 2008, a publication of the National Science Board, reports. The number of science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded annually in the U.S. rose by nearly 60 percent in the last two decades, from about 19,000 to 30,000, the report says. The number of people under 35 in the U.S. holding doctorates in biomedical sciences, Indicators note, rose by 59.4 percent — from about 12,000 to about 19,000 — between 1993 and 2001, but the number of under-35s holding the tenure-track positions rose by just 6.7 percent, remaining under 2,000."
What seems to be lacking, in my opinion, in this discussion and debate is any sense of targeting fields individually. Some fields have a surplus of PhD students, with limited job opportunities within the field. My specialty field, high-energy physics, is likely one of those. Many Americans in this field have to go overseas to the CERN facilities in order to do their research, and one finds that the limited number of faculty positions that open up have those hundreds of applicants. In fact, Miller-McCune article states only nine faculty positions were hired nationally in particle physics last year! There are many hundreds of graduate students in the pipeline. However, if one thinks about fields that are likely to see growth, and will need highly trained STEM workers, think about a field like nuclear science and engineering. If the U.S. begins to build numerous new-age nuclear power plants, there will be a dramatic increase in the number of nuclear engineers needed to design, build, and maintain those facilities. This will also be a multiple decades area of growth. The need to study nuclear waste disposal, as well as be involved in nuclear no-proliferation work around the globe, will continue to fuel the need for more workers in these areas. Environmental engineering and positions related to the energy industry will need growth, as those appear to be the job-creation mechanisms in the global economy.
To generically say "we need more scientists and engineers" appears to be a misleading message to send to students who are interested in STEM fields. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to develop a system that accurately reflects specific needs and projected areas of growth in order to guide the education system and its students, so they can pursue degrees that will actually result if jobs related to those degrees. As a high school teacher, I know we do not receive such specific information or guidance that will help us advise and guide interested students into fields of growth. Part of the reason for this is a lack of communication in general between the K-12 and university levels of education, as well as a disconnect between the STEM industrial complex and K-12 education - we need to know something about the jobs prospects in order to help students pursue degrees where there is a more likely payoff at the end of four years or at the end of ten or more years if a student pursues a doctorate degree. It also would help for high school teachers to be aware of the numerous jobs that branch off a primary STEM degree. Again, I have experience with this as I went into high school teaching rather than pursuing a university position after earning my doctorate. Thinking about and planning for a student's STEM future needs to find its way into his or her high school education.
As for the American K-12 education system, I do want to once more re-state my position that our top students can compete with any other nation on the planet in STEM areas. And one aspect of this issue that is often overlooked and ignored, precisely because of an obsession over test scores, is that American students are among the most innovative and creative thinkers in the world. Because our students have nearly unlimited access to information, because they study the arts and history, because there are opportunities to begin doing research while in high school and participating in numerous competitions in STEM fields, they have been encouraged to learn from mistakes and take chances to 'think outside the box,' or as I like to tell students, to 'think outside a textbook,' when looking for solutions to tough problems. I will gladly take a hit in test scores where students have to regurgitate information, if those same students are creative problem solvers and thinkers, and are capable of communicating and collaborating with each other in the most diverse society the world has ever seen.
There is a reason we are the lone superpower. There is a reason American scientists and engineers have produced the most patents, publications, and won the most Nobel Prizes. Our K-12 system really does play a role in that, and I hope the effects of No Child Left Behind and the upcoming Race to the Top does not hurt the creative side of education and problem solving too badly because of the need to assess students and districts strictly by snapshot testing that drives the system. Producing students who have the creative and technological skills and foundational knowledge base to feed into the top university system in the world, with a more focused sense of what degrees to pursue that will lead to related jobs, can help keep the U.S. in the elite group of STEM nations for decades to come. Students also need to be aware that there are more, diverse opportunities outside of becoming a professor, both in academia and in the private sector. I am confident we will continue to produce the best-trained students in STEM, and continue to have the top intellectual infrastructure on the planet for many years to come. We just need to use some of that creative brain power to build a system to ensure jobs are available to encourage interested students in pursuing technical fields.