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Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (US); National Academy of Sciences (US); National Academy of Engineering (US); Institute of Medicine (US); Fox MA, editor. Pan-Organizational Summit on the US Science and Engineering Workforce: Meeting Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2003.

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Pan-Organizational Summit on the US Science and Engineering Workforce: Meeting Summary.

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The U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce: An Unconventional Portrait


Michael S. Teitelbaum1 Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, New York


For much of the past 10-15 years, it has been a commonplace in many academic and public advocacy settings to emphasize current or prospective “shortages” or “shortfalls” (or sometimes “inadequate skills”) in the U.S. science and engineering workforce. Beginning in the late 1980s, the then leadership of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and of a few top research universities argued that a “looming shortfall” of scientists and engineers emerging between the mid-1980s and 2006 could be discerned.2 Their arguments were based upon projections produced by the NSF's late Division of Policy Research and Analysis.3

When, only a few years later, it became apparent that the trend was in the opposite direction to that of the forecasted “shortfall,” i.e., a growing surplus of scientists and engineers, the NSF as a whole was subjected to the embarrassment of an investigation by the staff of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, followed by an investigative hearing. In his opening remarks at the latter, the subcommittee's chairman Rep. Howard Wolpe stated that the “credibility of the [National Science] Foundation is seriously damaged when it is so careless about its own product.” The subcommittee's ranking minority member (and now chairman of the full Science Committee), Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, stated that the NSF director's shortfall prediction, “delivered up in the context of growing concerns about our nation's competitive standing, was the equivalent to shouting ‘Fire' in a crowded theater. . . . Today we will hear that number was based on very tenuous data and analysis. . . . In short, a mistake was made, let's figure out how to avoid similar mistakes and then move on.”4

Notwithstanding this unfortunate recent history, in September 2002 a new report issued by a year-old entity called Building Engineering and Science Talent (BEST), established by the Council on Competitiveness to focus on admirable concerns about underrepresentation of women and some minority groups in science and engineering, pointed to a “Quiet Crisis” of insufficient production of scientists and engineers in the U.S.5

Moreover, only one month earlier, the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) testified before the House Science Committee about NASA's hiring problems. He reported that “[e]ven utilizing all the tools at hand we are at a disadvantage when competing with the private sector,” but then went well beyond NASA's own particular competitive problems to claim a general “lack of scientists and engineers”:

NASA is not alone in its search for enthusiastic and qualified employees. Throughout the federal government, as well as the private sector, the challenge faced by a lack of scientists and engineers is real and is growing by the day.

He pointed to NSF statistics showing that graduate enrollment in engineering, physical and earth sciences, and math showed declines between 1993 and 2000, and from the mid-1990s to 2000, engineering and physics doctorates declined by 15 percent and 22 percent, respectively.6

Thus it would appear that “shortages” or “shortfalls,” whether current or impending, have become the hardy perennials of public discourse on these issues. Suffice it to say that there is no credible quantitative evidence of such shortages. All available evidence suggests that overall labor markets for scientists and engineers are relatively slack, with considerable variation by field and over time. This generalization is quite consistent with the existence of very tight labor markets in some areas that are new or growing rapidly (e.g., bioinformatics). Meanwhile, in other areas there appear to be substantial surpluses, with special problems in previous boom sectors such as telecommunications, computing, software, etc. This is not surprising, given that the broader U.S. economy is in a period of economic downturn, and especially given the recent collapse of the dot-com bubble and the deep crises in the telecommunications industry.7 Labor market projections that go very far into the future are notoriously problematic: no one can know what the U.S. economy and its science and technology sectors will look like in 2012. Certainly there are no credible projections of future “shortages” on which sensible policy responses might be based.


When concerns about current or forecast shortages are invoked, the trends described typically are attributed to:

  1. The failings of the U.S. K-12 education system, especially its inadequacies in science and mathematics.
  2. A declining level of interest in such fields among U.S. students, especially among the “best and brightest,” in part because of the relative difficulty of science and mathematics as fields of study.
  3. Inadequate knowledge among younger U.S. cohorts of science and engineering fields as careers, or in the alternative of the science and math prerequisites required to pursue them at university level.
  4. For women and minorities, a lack of role models in these fields, suggesting to younger cohorts that such fields are “not for me.”

Others with knowledge of science and engineering labor markets have expressed equally energetic concerns about the increasingly unattractive career experiences of newly minted scientists and (to a lesser extent) engineers. Numerous reports and pronouncements in this direction have emanated from scientific and engineering societies, from Congress, and from the press. A prominent example is the report by a National Research Council (NRC) committee chaired by Shirley Tilghman that pointed to serious career problems facing young biomedical scientists in the second half of the 1990s.8 Yet recent data reported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicate that key indicators of such career problems have continued to deteriorate since then. Science magazine (4 October 2002) reported as follows on an interview with Tilghman (now president of Princeton University) about the new NIH data:

It's appalling. The data reviewed by the panel in 1994 looked “bad,” but compared to today, they actually look pretty good.9


The main message of this brief note is that the two apparently contradictory concerns above are in fact closely linked to one another. To state the message succinctly: those who are concerned about whether the production of U.S. scientists and engineers is sufficient for national needs must pay serious attention to whether careers in science and engineering are attractive relative to other career opportunities available to U.S. students.

As noted, this is not the conventional picture, but it is one that I believe warrants thoughtful assessment and discussion. It begins with the acknowledgment that pursuit of the qualifications required for careers in engineering and in science (especially) requires large personal investments. The direct financial costs of the higher education required for entry into such careers can be very high, depending in part on the family financial circumstances of undergraduates (where financial aid is often need based), whether the institution attended is private or public, whether post-baccalaureate education is required, and, if so, whether such education is lengthy and/or highly subsidized.

Engineering and science differ substantially in these characteristics. For engineering, only the baccalaureate is normally required for entry into the profession, for which educational subsidies are available for those in financial need. In contrast, for professional careers in the sciences the conventional entry-level degree is the Ph.D. and increasingly a subsequent postdoc, the direct financial costs of which are typically heavily subsidized by both government and institutions. Yet even with such subsidies, the personal costs of the required Ph.D. can be quite high—less in the form of direct financial expenditures and more in the time required to attain the qualifications needed.

The extreme case is that of the biosciences. In this large domain of science, which comprises a large fraction of all Ph.D.'s awarded, an average of 10-12 years postbaccalaureate are now required for initial entry as an independent professional: first a 7-8 year Ph.D. program, and then 2-5 years spent in postdoctoral status that has become a virtual requirement for career initiation. In career terms, this implies that most young bioscientists are now unable to initiate their careers as full-fledged professionals until they are in their early thirties, and those in academic positions are not generally eligible for tenure until their late thirties. As noted by Wendy Baldwin, deputy director of Extramural Research for NIH, this is a source of concern to NIH because of “the long-held observation that a lot of people who do stunning work do it early in their careers.”10 Such a pattern, in which career initiation is delayed until one's thirties, is also a source of inherent conflict with the social and biological patterns of marriage and family-building.

There are also significant economic effects of this 10-12 year period in a student or apprentice position: a substantial fraction of annual income that would otherwise be earned11 must be forgone—what economists term “opportunity costs.” A recent study of this subject concludes that bioscientists experience a “huge lifetime economic disadvantage”: on the order of $400,000 in earnings discounted at 3 percent compared to Ph.D. fields such as engineering, and about $1 million in lifetime earnings compared with medicine. When expected lifetime earnings of bioscientists are compared with those of MBA recipients from the same university, the study estimated a conservative lifetime difference in earnings of $1.0 million exclusive of stock options, and perhaps double that if stock options are included.12

In smaller scientific fields such as physics and chemistry, where times to Ph.D. are shorter and lengthy postdocs less universal, the differentials are smaller but still substantial. Given these significant personal investments of direct expenditures or forgone income, careers in science and engineering must offer commensurate attractions relative to other career paths available to U.S. students. The key words in the preceding sentence are “relative to other career paths available to U.S. students.” If U.S. students perceive careers in science and engineering to be increasingly unattractive in relative terms, they have numerous options for career choice in other domains. College graduates who have demonstrated that they are talented and interested in scientific and mathematical domains can choose to go to medical school, law school, or business school, or they can enter the workforce without graduate degrees.

The options available to most non-U.S. students (at least for those from low-income countries) are profoundly different. Attendance at U.S. medical or law schools is not a realistic opportunity, due to the very high costs involved and the absence of subsidies. Meanwhile, it is well known that science Ph.D. programs at many U.S. universities actively recruit and subsidize graduate students from China, India, and elsewhere.

There are, of course, many significant noneconomic rewards (or “psychic income”) associated with careers in science and engineering: the wonderful intellectual challenge of research and discovery; the life of the mind in which fundamental puzzles of nature and the cosmos can be addressed; the potential to develop exciting and useful new technologies. For many, these attractions make science and engineering careers worthy of real sacrifices— “callings” analogous to those of the religious ministry or artistic expression. Happily, some fraction of talented U.S. students will decide out of such personal values and commitments to pursue graduate degrees and careers in science or engineering, even with full knowledge that the career paths may be unattractive in relative terms.

Yet it is also true that others with strong scientific and mathematical talents will decide that a better course for their lives would be law school, business school, medical school, or other directions. The following simple questions may usefully be posed regarding the relative attractiveness of careers in science and engineering fields:

  1. Does the career path offer a reasonable likelihood that those who have made the sacrifices needed to attain the entry-level degree (B.S. in engineering, Ph.D. in science) will have predictable access to the “practice” of their chosen profession? In other words, is there known to be sufficient demand in the labor market to provide reasonable career opportunities for most newly qualified engineers and scientists?
  2. Can those contemplating a career in science or engineering realistically aspire to a middle-class life style, roughly parallel (even if somewhat less remunerative) to those experienced in other professions?
  3. Is the trajectory of a career in science or engineering compatible with a typical adult “life”? That is, does the career path fit realistically with marriage, family-building, and the biological constraints of human reproduction?


There is a general consensus on the importance of attracting significant numbers of outstanding young U.S. citizens to science/engineering careers. Yet it appears that a variety of forces have conspired— with no one intending this outcome—to a relative deterioration of such careers when compared with those available in medicine, law, and business.

The main negative forces involved seem to differ for engineering and for science. For prospective engineers, the primary deterrents at present may be the visible instability of career paths and the increasing exposure to competition with engineers from low-income countries who are prepared to work for small fractions of prevailing U.S. living standards—a situation not generally experienced by other professionals such as lawyers and physicians. For would-be scientists (with considerable variation by field), the deterrents seem to include the lengthening time to degree and in postdoc/apprenticeship roles, coupled with increasing uncertainty as to the possibility of being able to “practice” as a professional scientist once this lengthy postgraduate apprenticeship period has been completed.

As previously noted, those who are concerned about whether the production of U.S. scientists and engineers is sufficient for national needs must pay serious attention to the relative attractiveness of careers in science and engineering, when compared with other career opportunities available to U.S. students. It would therefore be judicious to exercise caution in again invoking the hardy perennials of prospective “shortages” of scientists and engineers, lest these prophecies prove to be self-fulfilling— leading to actions that cause further deterioration in the relative attractiveness of such careers, thereby exacerbating the very problems they seek to resolve.



The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


Accessible reports on these materials may be found in, e.g., Constance Holden, “Wanted: 675,000 Future Scientists and Engineers,” Science, 30 June 1989, pp. 1536-1537; testimony of Erich Bloch, director, National Science Foundation, before U.S. Senate, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, Hearing on Shortage of Engineers and Scientists, May 8, 1990, p. 25.


This was a small staff office located within the NSF director's office. The 1992 congressional investigation described below uncovered extensive documentary evidence, reproduced in the subcommittee report, that NSF's own professional experts on the science and engineering workforce had expressed strong skepticism about the validity of the shortfall projections.


U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Projecting Science and Engineering Personnel Requirements for the 1990s: How Good Are the Numbers? Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993, pp. 1-10.


See Shirley Ann Jackson, The Quiet Crisis: Falling Short in Producing American Scientific and Technical Talent, BEST (Building Engineering and Science Talent), Washington, DC, September 2002.


“Hearing Details Concerns over Future of NASA's S&T Workforce.” APS News, October 2002; pg. 7.


On October 11, 2002, Lucent announced that a further $1 billion restructuring charge in the quarter will involve cuts of 10,000 jobs during the current fiscal year, which ends in September 2003. These cuts would bring Lucent employment down to 35,000, 22 percent lower than its previously expected total of 45,000 at the end of calendar year 2002. The company employed 106,000 in 2001. (Reuters News Wire, October 11, 2002).


National Research Council, Committee on Dimensions, Causes, and Implicatons of Recent Trends in the Careers of Life Scientists, Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998).


Erica Goldman and Eliot Marshall, “NIH Grantees: Where Have All The Young Ones Gone?” Science, 298, 4 October 2002, p. 40.


Ibid., p. 40.


Plus deferred benefits such as pension contributions, which with tax-free accumulation can become very significant sums over time.


Richard Freeman, Eric Weinstein, Elizabeth Marincola, Janet Rosenbaum, Frank Solomon, “Careers and Rewards in Bio Sciences: The Disconnect between Scientific Progress and Career Progression,” American Society for Cell Biology, ms., September 2001, pp. 10-12.

Copyright © 2003, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK36349


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