Report stresses need for U.S. born scientists

In a report released Nov. 19, the National Science Board said the federal government should act to alleviate the coming shortage of U.S.-born scientists and engineers, giving weighty and official backing to a problem that academia has long recognized.

As the policy-making body of the National Science Foundation--which was founded in 1950 to promote the progress of science, advance the national welfare and secure the national defense--the NSB is uniquely suited to address the problem of the shortage. Members of the board are appointed by the President and are designated by statute to advise Congress and the President on national science and engineering policy. "People have been hearing about this shortage for some time, but this is the first time the NSB has weighed in on this issue in this way," said Daniel Simberloff, professor of environmental science at the University of Tennessee and a member of the NSB task force that issued last week's report. "We did it deliberately to get lots of attention. We've seen some concern from people in Congress and the White House, so hopefully the report will have an impact."

The report was the result of a three-year study into long-term national workforce trends in science and engineering, and their relationship to existing federal policies. In the report, the NSB holds that the nation's current science and engineering workforce is in large part foreign. The board found that 17 percent of the workforce with bachelor's degrees in science or engineering was not from the United States. In addition, 29 percent of those with master's degrees and 38 percent of those with doctoral degrees were foreign, according to the 2000 census.

With more competition in other countries for science and engineering professionals and increased difficulty for foreigners trying to obtain appropriate visas, however, the United States may not be able to continue importing foreign scholars. The lack of U.S.-born scientists and engineers could then translate into an inability to compete in global markets and a potential risk to national security, according to the report.

"The board is concerned with our increasing dependence on the international market for scientists and engineers for both economic and national security reasons," said George Langford, professor of biology at Dartmouth College and vice chair of the NSB task force, noting the interdependence of the two arenas. "High technology-based industries have led economic growth in the United States and are a focus for economic development in other countries who wish to emulate the United States' success. Our strong economy is part of our national security." Langford added that innovation in defense-related areas--often supported by the federal government through research and education funds--can spawn new civilian industries such as the Internet, which started as a Department of Defense research project.

Nina Fedoroff, professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University and another member of the NSB task force, agreed. "In view of the fact that other countries increasingly recognize the importance of training and retaining scientists and engineers, we're risking our way of life," she said.

The report makes a set of general recommendations regarding national science engineering policy and addresses the problem from a number of different angles. For example, the report recommends the federal government provide incentives to institutions to expand and improve the quality of science and engineering programs in areas in which degree attainment nationwide is insufficient. The report also recommends the federal government ensure stipends for graduate and postdoctoral students are competitive with opportunities in other venues. Even on a pre-college level, the report says, the government must increase students' interest in and preparation for science and engineering courses of study. This can be done through steps such as ensuring that math, science and technology teachers are compensated comparably to similarly trained science and engineering professionals in other sectors and by reinforcing the profession of teaching as an important and rewarding career, the report reads.

Although the report does not mandate national policy changes, members of the NSB task force said its recommendations are both feasible and necessary.

"When we have seen a crisis in the past, such as when the U.S.S.R. sent up Sputnik, we mounted a significant educational improvement program--and it worked," Fedoroff said.

Langford stressed the need for funding to improve science and engineering education, even in the face of tight budgets for educational objectives across the board. "Increased attention to the education of Americans to enable our citizens to participate in the science and engineering workforce should be commensurate with the importance of ensuring our national lead in science and engineering for the future, in both civilian and defense areas," Langford said.

Still, actual funding increases were not guaranteed. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, NSF Director Rita Colwell did not explain how the recommendations would influence the agency's budget request for the 2005 fiscal year, scheduled to be released in February. "The report's recommendations are all feasible," Simberloff said. "Whether they will be recognized quickly, given the economic and ideological climate, I don't know.... It is somewhat controversial because there have been claims before, including 20 years ago, that this shortage would be a big problem. But it didn't materialize because we were able to import all these foreign workers and students."


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