Status Report

AIP FYI #48: President’s S&T Council Considers the Nation’s Innovation Ecosystem

By SpaceRef Editor
April 15, 2004
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Members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and
Technology (PCAST) spent March 30 listening to presentations on two
timely S&T topics: the science and engineering workforce, and
nanotechnology. During a morning briefing on workforce issues,
Microsoft Executive Vice President Robert Herbold told committee
members that the nation’s economic competitiveness is affected by
many more factors than simply “are we producing enough scientists
and engineers?” The afternoon was devoted to presentations by
representatives of academia, industry and government on what is
known about the environmental and health impacts of engineered
nanoscale materials, and possible regulatory mechanisms. The
afternoon session will be covered in FYI #49.

In examining ways to maintain the strength of the nation’s science,
technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) capabilities, Herbold
said, PCAST’s Subcommittee on Science and Engineering
Workforce/Education came to realize that this is only one component
of a larger issue, which he called “protecting the nation’s
innovation ecosystem.” This system, he said, comprises a mix of
factors including research universities, R&D centers, government
funded research, the venture capital industry and the free
enterprise system; “things that other countries salivate for.”

Herbold presented data indicating that the U.S. is producing a
declining share of global science and engineering degrees (both
baccalaureate and graduate), and that long-term shifts are likely in
countries’ shares of global STEM talent. He added that foreign
countries producing significantly more science and engineering
graduates typically have low wages, attracting R&D investment and
numerous jobs. Until the standard of living in those countries
rises substantially, he said, the disparity will cause some U.S.
companies to outsource jobs to those countries in order to remain

Herbold acknowledged that predicting shortages in the U.S. STEM
workforce was a “sensitive” issue, and said that the question
instead should be whether the nation’s talent base was “adequate” to
maintain the health of the innovation ecosystem. The trends in
degree production among U.S. citizens, he declared, were “alarming,”
and led the subcommittee to make a series of recommendations focused
on improving K-12 science and math teaching and attracting more U.S.
citizens to STEM careers. After reviewing many prior reports, the
subcommittee proposed the following recommendations: execute
President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative “with excellence;”
strengthen K-12 science and math curricula; encourage alternative
teacher certification, vouchers, and charter schools; and make the
teaching profession more attractive. The subcommittee also urged
universities to seek creative ways to retain student interest in
STEM fields, develop alternate degree programs like a professional
master’s, and shorten the time to a PhD; and recommended
establishment of a program of fellowships to attract more U.S.
citizens to STEM careers and exploration of ways to retain non-U.S.

However, as several PCAST members commented and Herbold agreed,
“most of the suggestions are out there” already. Council members
questioned the scope and purpose of the report, and how it could
have the greatest impact. Some thought that the report should
emphasize a few of the most important recommendations; Herbold said
it should serve as a “wake-up call” for preservation of the entire
innovation ecosystem. OSTP Director and PCAST co-chair John
Marburger suggested that the subcommittee incorporate the morning’s
discussion and present the report for consensus at a future date.

Audrey T. Leath

Media and Government Relations Division

The American Institute of Physics

(301) 209-3094

SpaceRef staff editor.