Monday, June 15, 2009

On the shortage of scientists and engineers

The anti-reformists have continued their rhetoric with respect to the failures of the US in math and science.  
Gerald Bracey in Phi Delta Kappan (March 2008) does a wonderful job of responding to them. 
His article, On the shortage of scientists and engineers, touches on many aspects.
He response to the U.S. TIMSS data is below:
While the U.S. is middling in ranks in math and science assessments, the differences among countries in terms of scores are often quite small. The most extreme occurrence of this phenomenon was in the eighth-grade science assessment for the 1995 TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study). American students got 58% of the items correct, compared to 56% for the international average. This ranked them 19th among the 49 participating nations. Middling performance, no? Had they gotten a mere 5% more correct answers, they would have ranked fifth, and had they gotten 5% fewer correct, they'd have slumped to 30th.
He also points out two other major fallacies of the anti-reformists:

1. The U.S. suffers serious shortfalls or shortages of scientists and engineers, and this bodes ill for both creativity and international competitiveness.
RESPONSE: There is no shortage. Several RAND Corporation studies found surpluses. There might be shortages in some new fields or fields growing explosively, but not overall.
2. The number of newly educated scientists and engineers is insufficient to fulfill employer needs. Thus the need to hire from   overseas.
RESPONSE: There are substantially more scientists and engineers graduating from U.S. universities than can find attractive career openings in S & E fields. Indeed, the S & E opportunities seem unattractive to many holders of S & E degrees. "Into the Eye of the Storm" (no doubt a pot shot at the National Academies), a paper by Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University and Harold Salzman of the Urban Institute, found roughly three S & E graduates for every new S & E job (not counting openings created by retirements). They also found that two years after graduation from S & E programs, 20% of the grads with bachelor's degrees were in school but not in S & E programs and 45% were in the work force but not in S & E jobs. The attrition rate for that time period for those with master's degrees was about 38%. One can only imagine how critics would howl if education lost 65% of its work force in just two years!

Nor are fewer students following S & E paths in universities. From 1977 to 2002, the number of citizens and permanent residents earning bachelor's degrees in S & E grew from about 300,000 to about 400,000, those earning master's degrees increased from about 60,000 to about 70,000, and those earning doctorates held steady at about 20,000.

Other studies have concluded that the decline in the pool of citizens and permanent residents with S & E credentials may reflect a weakening demand, a comparative decline in S & E wages, and market signals to students about low relative wages in S & E. I'm not sure exactly what the "market signals" are, but real wages for S & E workers have declined over a 20-year period. And students can see older scientists spending more time writing grant applications, getting fewer of them funded, and having a tougher time getting tenure. They can see the post-doc headed for what science writer Dan Greenberg calls the newest title: post-doc emeritus. And students, not surprisingly, head to greener fields.

Finally, there is some evidence that the nature of the engineering profession has become less appealing. Lowell and Salzman observe that projects today are often larger team efforts that require more coordination and management. In their interviews, engineers often commented that the field was not as challenging as it once was because it contains less "real" engineering.

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