Scientist shortage in the US

The National Science Foundation has just released a report on the growing, or should I say shrinking, problem getting home-grown scientists at a time when other nations are doing a better job, and retaining more scientists.

Being an American organisation, of course the NSF is focussing on the problems for that nation, but it inadvertently highlights a number of problems that are more widely being felt.

The west is, in short, falling behind on science. It is not merely the sheer volume of science, but the differential growth rates that count. The Scientist reports

The NSB report, along with NSF’s biennial Science and Engineering (S&E) Indicators 2004, found that the number of US jobs requiring S&E skills is growing at nearly 5% annually, compared with a 1% growth rate for the rest of the US labor market. But several forces are undermining the nation’s ability to meet the demand for qualified scientists and engineers:

Many of those currently working in S&E will retire in the next 20 years, while a smaller number of students are choosing S&E careers to take their place. The United States has fallen from third place in 1975 to 17th place compared to other countries in the proportion of 18 to 24 year-olds earning S&E degrees.

Over the past several decades, record numbers of foreign-born S&E professionals have filled this gap. Between 1990 and 2000, the proportion of foreign-born people with doctorates employed in US S&E occupations rose from 24 to 28%. And in 2001, more than half the US engineering and computer science graduates were foreign-born students. But restrictions on visas issued to students, exchange visitors, and scientists following the September 11 terror attacks have sharply curtailed this inflow. “This shortcut to a trained workforce is not likely to continue,” the NSB report states.

Increasing opportunities for science jobs in other countries are luring qualified scientists away from the United States. Between 1993 and 1997, developed countries other than the United States increased their number of S&E research jobs by 23%, compared with an 11% increase in the United States.

Reversing this trend appears to be ten years away if everything goes right.

When you look at the report itself, which is online, you begin to see why. Science teachers are not well trained or even teaching in their speciality, students are being forced to focus more on getting “right” answers than on understanding concepts, and not enough is being introduced - instead students are left to practice what they already know.

No mention is made in the teaching sections of evolution, but the Science and Engineering Indicators report of the National Science Board notes, under Public Attitudes and Understanding that

[m]ore Americans now agree with the theory of evolution. The 2001 NSF survey marked the first time that more than half (53 percent) of Americans answered “true” in response to the statement “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” (In Europe, 69 percent responded “true.”) Whether and how the theory of evolution is taught in public schools remains one of the most contentious issues in U.S. science education.

but goes on to note that

[m]ost Americans (two-thirds in the 2001 NSF survey) do not clearly understand the scientific process. Knowing how ideas are investigated and analyzed–a sure sign of scientific literacy–is important. Critical thinking skills are invaluable not only in science but also in making wise and well-informed choices as citizens and consumers.

Science has only flourished in the west because it grabbed the attention of the general public. Whenever that attention has waned, so too has education fallen behind, funding for research become subjugated to political goals and interests, and in the end nations become less influential and competent.

Those countries that are behind the west, however, know very well that science is how things are achieved, and they have no such compunctions in teaching it. They may, probably will, fall prey to the same problems themselves in a century or so, but that doesn’t alleviate the west’s problems now.

The price of achievement is eternal education, as someone might once have said.