What Scientist Shortage?

The Johnny-can't-do-science myth damages US research

On July 28, 2011, Senator Chuck Schumer, a democrat from New York, opened a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on high-skill immigration with a call to staple a green card to the diploma of every foreign student who earns a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math—known collectively as a STEM degree—in the United States. “As we all know,” added Texas Republican John Cornyn, the subcommittee’s ranking member, “there is a scarcity of qualified people for many jobs, particularly those in high technology.”

The senators’ comments echo the conventional wisdom about America’s scientific labor force, repeated in countless media articles and broadcasts, and by business and political leaders all the way up to and including President Obama: we are failing to produce a sufficient quantity of scientists and engineers and therefore must import large numbers of foreigners to remain innovative and competitive. Just a pair of recent examples: a Washington Post op-ed on August 4, 2011, that explained how to “curb our engineering shortage” and a New York Times story on November 4, 2011, headlined “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just so Darn Hard),” that highlighted a call by “the president and industry groups” for “colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year.”

But what “we all know,” as Senator Cornyn put it, turns out not to be true—and the perpetuation of this myth is discouraging Americans from pursuing scientific careers. Leading experts on the STEM workforce, including Richard Freeman of Harvard, Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Paula Stephan of Georgia State University, Hal Salzman of Rutgers, Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown, and Norman Matloff of the University of California-Davis, have said for years that the US produces ample numbers of excellent science students. In fact, according to the National Science Board’s authoritative publication Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, the country turns out three times as many STEM degrees as the economy can absorb into jobs related to their majors.

So what’s going on? Simply put, a desire for cheap, skilled labor, within the business world and academia, has fueled assertions—based on flimsy and distorted evidence—that American students lack the interest and ability to pursue careers in science and engineering, and has spurred policies that have flooded the market with foreign STEM workers. This has created a grim reality for the scientific and technical labor force: glutted job markets; few career jobs; low pay, long hours, and dismal job prospects for postdoctoral researchers in university labs; near indentured servitude for holders of temporary work visas.

Here’s what Ronil Hira, an engineer and a professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, told the senators at that July hearing:

Contrary to some of the discussion here this morning, the STEM job market is mired in a jobs recession…with unemployment rates…two to three times what we would expect at full employment….Loopholes have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers with ordinary skills…to directly substitute for, rather than complement, American workers. The programs are clearly displacing and denying opportunities to American workers.

Hira’s testimony got almost no media attention, coming as it did a week before the headline-hogging debt-ceiling deadline. But for many years reporters have repeated, without scrutiny, the assertions about shortages by representatives of industries and universities that employ large numbers of STEM workers, and thus have strong financial interests in keeping salaries down.

The public perception of a dearth of homegrown talent has shaped national policy, permitting companies and universities to import tens of thousands of foreign scientists and IT workers who toil for artificially low wages.

Even more damaging, the resulting oversupply has destroyed the incentives that used to attract many of America’s best students to science and technology careers. Importing PhDs and other highly skilled workers depresses the incomes of everyone in the affected fields, according to research by Harvard economist George Borjas. Raising the supply by just 10 percent through immigration lowers pay in a given field by 3 to 4 percent, he wrote in a 2006 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. As it is, more than half the postdocs working at American universities are foreigners on temporary visas.

The shortage myth typically begins with the observation that American high school students’ scores on international comparison tests in science and math lag, on average, behind other countries. That is then presented as proof that American students perform poorly overall. But Rutgers’s Hal Salzman and Georgetown’s Lindsay Lowell have exposed serious problems with the data, including differences in the definitions of student status used by various nations’ school systems that result in apples-to-oranges comparisons between students of different ages and in different grades. In addition, the US has the most diverse student population of any industrial country, with large numbers of high-scoring students and another group—largely from disadvantaged minorities—who score very low. The averages thus indicate not an overall deficit in American science and math education, but the need for serious work with our worst-performing students.

In fact, American college students have for decades shown strong and consistent interest in STEM; year after year, just under a third of all college students in this country earn degrees in those subjects. But, ironically, dismal career prospects drive many of the best of those students to more promising professions, such as medicine, law, or finance.

The shortage narrative dates back more than fifty years. In 1957, during an era when science and engineering were attractive careers, Russia’s surprise launch of the Sputnik satellite touched off a panic over America’s suddenly threatened scientific primacy. It inspired huge increases in federal funding for STEM education that by the early 1970s had swamped the job market. In the 1980s, a National Science Foundation study, motivated by concern about possible future increases in the cost of hiring scientists, raised another false alarm about looming shortages. Denounced by experts for methodological flaws and ultimately disavowed by an nsf director in congressional testimony, the study nonetheless bolstered support for the 1990 Immigration Act that reshaped national policy to admit more foreign scientists and engineers. The tech boom of the late 1990s spurred yet another round of dire prophecies, even though a report at the time by Congress’s General Accounting Office found no evidence to support the idea of a shortage.

The latest shortage panic began with the 2005 publication of Rising Above the Gathering Storm, an almost freakishly influential National Academies report bemoaning the supposed inability of the American educational system to fill the nation’s need for STEM workers and meet the perceived challenge of India and China to American technological supremacy. The report, produced by a committee headed by Norman Augustine, a retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, immediately grabbed media attention. Thomas Friedman, whose own best-seller about the rise of America’s Asian rivals, The World Is Flat, appeared that same year, highlighted Storm in his New York Times column. Multiple Storm editions and a 2011 sequel have kept the scarcity narrative firmly in the public’s mind ever since.

There was another study of the scientific workforce published in 2005 by the National Academies, however, that was mostly ignored by the press. Bridges to Independence, produced by a committee chaired by Thomas Cech, the Nobel laureate in chemistry, documented a genuine shortage not of homegrown scientists but of viable career opportunities for those scientists. It also detailed the damage that the resulting “crisis of expectation” for young PhDs trapped in an overcrowded job market was doing to the nation’s research enterprise.

But it was Storm, not Bridges, that became the script for the national discussion, as Congress enacted the America COMPETES Act that included provisions to increase the number of STEM graduates from America’s universities.

Why the difference? Perhaps it’s because proponents of the scarcity narrative typically publicize their views in press releases, while the labor-force experts rely on scholarly papers. Or maybe simplistic narratives of America in decline are just more appealing to the press than the less-dramatic reality.

Still, sometimes the message of those more scholarly efforts does get through. During that July hearing on Capitol Hill, Senator Jeff Sessions, in the wake of Ronil Hira’s testimony, told a proponent of the scarcity myth that “I think [Dr. Hira] is fundamentally right.”

It’s time that the media started listening, too. 

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Beryl Lieff Benderly is a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.