Status Report

AIP FYI #103: Point-Counterpoint: Status of U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce

By SpaceRef Editor
July 29, 2004
Filed under , ,

A recurring theme in S&T policy discussions has been the status of
the scientific and engineering workforce in America. There has been
and continues to be concern about whether or not the United States
is training enough scientists and engineers for the future economy.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers and five other
engineering societies, in conjunction with the Congressional
Research and Development Caucus, sponsored a well-attended briefing
on July 15 featuring three speakers with a range of views on whether
the U.S. is training a large enough S&T workforce for the future.
Opening the briefing were caucus co-chairs Judy Biggert (R-IL) and
Rush Holt (D-NJ). This caucus has 33 members representing the full
spectrum of political ideology. The briefing was the latest in a
series of caucus events on S&T topics such as the hydrogen economy,
defense S&T, and advanced health technologies. Congressional
caucuses give Members of Congress who may not sit on a relevant
committee the opportunity to be active in an issue area. Caucuses
also highlight the importance of a particular issue. Further
information on this caucus is at

Biggert, Holt and Michael Reischman of ASME set the stage for the
speakers, with Reischman neatly summarizing the issue by asking if
there is “a real gap or not?” Biggert, the chair of the House
Science Subcommittee on Energy, spoke of the continuing concern
there has been about the replacement of retiring members of the
current S&T workforce. Also of concern are the many foreign-born
S&T graduates of U.S. institutions who, while once remaining in
America, are now returning home. The future S&T workforce
question is an important one, she said, with “everything on the
line,” including our nation’s economy, living standard, and

Holt’s remarks seconded Biggert’s comments. He explained that the
international ranking of the United States with citizens 18-26 years
old educated in S&T fields has dropped considerably in the last 25
years. Decisions now being made by middle grade students will have
important ramifications on the future S&T workforce, he said. This
is not a clearly defined issue, Holt added, alluding to a recent
American Institute of Physics review of a National Science Board
statement (see .)

Michael P. Crosby is the Executive Officer for the National Science
Board. The board issued a statement warning that “the nation’s
economic welfare and security are at stake” because of the declining
number of Americans who are being trained to become scientists and
engineers, while the number of jobs requiring such training grows
( Crosby used a series of
visuals to illustrate why the board drew this conclusion, citing
“concern over the long term” about global competition, U.S. reliance
on foreign researchers, impending S&T workforce retirements, and the
lack of bachelor degree candidates in the sciences. Regarding U.S.
dependence on foreign researchers, Cosby stated it is “not going to
serve our nation well” to depend on them, and that the United States
must “grow our own.” A major obstacle to increasing the number of
science and engineering graduates are the very high opportunity
costs in obtaining an advanced degree. Crosby closed by saying that
“the board concludes there is no immediate crisis . . . [but] the
long term trends are disturbing.”

Presenting a different view was Michael S. Teitelbaum, a demographer
at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Teitelbaum began by saying that
the claim about an impending S&T workforce shortage has been made
for almost two decades, noting the NSF’s previous prominent role in
advancing this position. Asking if the current pronouncement is
“deja vu, all over again,” he characterized the shortfall claims as
lacking analytical rigor. Teitelbaum contends that overall S&E
labor markets are “slack,” science “career prospects
deteriorating,” and engineering careers “unstable.” “If anything,
data points to surpluses,” he said. “No one can forecast the S&E
scene in 2012,” he exclaimed. Further attention should be given to
not only supply, but also to demand for these positions. Teitelbaum
also described the high opportunity costs involved in establishing
a science or engineering career, giving as an example the required
9-12 year post-baccalaureate education /apprenticeship process for

The third speaker was John A. Brighton, Assistant Director for
Engineering at the NSF. Brighton urged that science and engineering
be viewed as distinct disciplines (rather than lumping them together
as is customary), saying that they are as distinct as railroads and
highways are as forms of transportation. Brighton explained that
“engineering enrollments are unstable” and difficult to predict. He
advocated that future engineers be educated more broadly, and called
for engineering schools to rethink their programs. Specialization
in one engineering field, he said, makes an individual less
marketable in non-academic positions. Highlighting one troublesome
problem, Brighton called for more research to determine why
students switch out of engineering majors.

The Congressional Research Caucus has posted the materials presented
at the briefing at the following site:

Richard M. Jones

Media and Government Relations Division

The American Institute of Physics

(301) 209-3094

SpaceRef staff editor.