3/24/10 - too many scientists?

In today's excerpt - does the U.S. produce too many scientists?:

"For years, Americans have heard blue-ribbon commissions and major industrialists bemoan a shortage of scientists caused by an inadequate education system. A lack of high-tech talent, these critics warn so threatens the nation's continued competitiveness that the U.S. must drastically upgrade its K-12 science and math education and import large numbers of technically trained foreigners by promptly raising the current limit on the number of skilled foreigners allowed to enter the country to work in private industry. ...

"But many ... prominent labor economists, disagree. 'There is no scientist shortage,' says Harvard University economist Richard Freeman, a leading expert on the academic labor force. The great lack in the American scientific labor market, he and other observers argue, is not top-flight technical talent but attractive career opportunities for the approximately 30,000 scientists and engineers—about 18,000 of them American citizens—who earn PhDs in the U.S. each year. ...

"The competition for science faculty jobs is so intense that every advertised opening routinely attracts hundreds of qualified applicants. Most PhDs hired into faculty-level jobs get so-called 'soft-money' posts, dependent on the renewal of year-to-year funding rather than the traditional tenure-track positions that offer long-term security. ...

"Despite these realities ... 'almost no one in Washington' recognizes the 'glut' of scientists nor the damage that lack or opportunity is doing to the incentives that formerly attracted many of America's most gifted young people to seek scientific and engineering careers, he says. ...

"One thing that's not in short supply are scientifically talented American students, whose academic achievements have been increasing rather than declining in recent years. 'Students emerging from the oft-criticized K-12 system appear to be studying science and math subjects more and performing better in them, over time,' said Michael Teitelbaum labor economist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in Congressional testimony in November 2007. 'Nor are [they] lagging far behind comparable students in economically competitive countries, as is oft asserted.' The number of Americans earning PhDs in science and technical fields has risen by 18 percent since 1985, according to the authoritative Scientific and Engineering Indicators 2008, published by the National Science Board. ...

"Arguments for the shortage based on the inadequacy of American education generally begin with the results of standardized tests used in international comparisons. Average scores for K-12 students in the U.S. never top those lists in either science or math (although they do in both reading and civics). On one widely cited assessment, Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), which tested American third and eighth graders between 1995 and 2003 and American 12th graders in 1995 and 1999, U.S. students ranked between fifth and 12th in math and science—results bemoaned by many as dangerously deficient.

"But a detailed study of students' performance on TIMSS as well as on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) another widely reported international comparison test, by B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration and Hal Salzman of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., suggests otherwise. 'Their point is that the average performance of U.S. students on these comparative international tests is not a meaningful number,' Teitelbaum says. Far from trailing the developed world in science education, as some claim 'on PISA, the U.S. has more high-scoring kids in science than any other country' and nearly as many in the top math category as top-scoring Japan and Korea, Salzman says. ...

"Scientists are not generally recruited from the average students [and] raising America's average scores on international comparisons is, therefore, not a matter of repairing a broken educational system that performs poorly overall, as many critiques suggest, but rather of improving the performance of the children at the bottom, overwhelmingly from low-income families ... This discrepancy, of course is a vital national need and responsibility, but it does not reflect an overall insufficient supply of able science students. Nor do American students lose interest in science once they reach college. ...

"The root of the problem, many believe, is [that research] has been done largely at the nation's universities and paid for through competitive, temporary grants awarded to individual professors by federal funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health [which now dispenses more than $28 billion a year and is the largest funder of non-military research on the planet] and the National Science Foundation ... 'while other countries have permanent ways of staffing their labs,' often with PhD staff scientists in career positions, says Georgia State University economist Paula Stephan, an authority on the academic labor force."


Beryl Lieff Benderly


Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?


Scientific American


February 22, 2010
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