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A Shortage of Scientific and Engineering Personnel?

A strong position in advanced technology is a key element of U.S. competitiveness for world markets. As an outcome of the 9/11 attacks, our government and citizenry have acknowledged that national security needs to be enhanced by technological development. Is our science and technology leadership eroding?

A report of the National Science Board published in May 2004 records a decline in home-grown brain power, increasing difficulty in attracting overseas scholars, and a looming shortage of scientists and engineers. The report concludes that "these trends threaten the economic welfare and security of our country." According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "University Presidents, government officials, and heads of industry have joined together in a chorus of concern over the state of science and engineering in the United States. The danger signs are obvious, they say. Fewer U.S. citizens are getting doctorates in those fields."

Not all voices share these gloomy assessments and forecasts. The authors of a recent report of the RAND Corporation conclude: "Despite recurring concerns about potential shortages of STEM [scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematics] personnel in the U.S. workforce, particularly in engineering and information technology, we did not find evidence that such shortages have existed at least since 1990, nor that they are on the horizon."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted in 2001 that the number of jobs would grow three times faster in science and engineering than for all occupations, increasing by 47 percent in ten years. This demand has so far been met by increases in the number of U.S. students and of foreign-born professionals entering the U.S. labor force. The overall enrollment of U.S. citizens in graduate school climbed 6.7 percent from 2000 to 2002. As an example, at the University of California, Los Angeles, graduate science-and-engineering enrollment of U.S. citizens surged by 25 percent, from 1,771 to 2,208, between 1993 and 2003. The overall number of U.S. citizens enrolling in physics graduate programs has climbed by 45 percent since 1999.

The National Foundation for American Policy reported in July 2004 that more than half of the engineers with a Ph.D. working in the U.S., and 45 percent of those with computer science doctorates, are foreign-born. The number of foreign students enrolling in U.S. universities has grown monotonically for several decades, increasing from 350,000 to 585,000 between 1984-85 and 2002-03. But there is evidence that the trend is reversing. The overall number of foreign students enrolling for 2003-04 in U.S. universities decreased by 2.4 percent, to 573,000. The decrease in graduate enrollment was larger, 6 percent. In science and engineering, the number of foreign graduate students admitted to top U.S. Institutions in 2003-04 was down 18 percent from the previous year. These numbers include first-, second-, third and fourth-year students, and conceal a larger downward trend seen when only new, first-year students are considered. According to a survey from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), the number of science and engineering graduate student applications has steadily decreased for several years, with the largest decrease occurring between 2003 and 2004—a drop of 36 percent for engineering schools, 20 percent for programs in the life sciences.

The CGS survey attributes the decline in international students enrolled in graduate studies to increased global competition, changed visa policies and diminished perceptions of the U.S. abroad. It remains to be seen whether or not these trends will persist, and whether they endanger the U.S. science-and-engineering enterprise.

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