What Scientist Shortage?

What Scientist Shortage?

The purported shortage of native-born scientific researchers seems to lack just one thing: hard evidence.

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“Do We Need More Scientists?” by Michael S. Teitelbaum, in The Public Interest (Fall 2003), 1112 16th St., N.W., Ste. 140, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Since the mid-1980s, university administrators, corporate employers, and government agencies have been warning of a dire shortage of native-born scientists and engineers. Last year, the National Science Board warned that the shortfall could “seriously threaten our long-term prosperity, national security, and quality of life.” Isn’t it strange, then, asks Teitelbaum, program director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to read newspaper reports about big layoffs of scientists and engineers in the computer, telecommunications, and aerospace industries, and stories about newly minted science and engineering Ph.D.’s who can’t find stable jobs?

What all the highly publicized warnings of impending crisis lack, says Teitelbaum, is solid evidence. There is no “strong upward pressure on real wages” for the nation’s 3.5 million scientists and engineers, and unemployment in science and engineering is as high as it is in other education-intensive professions. (It averaged more than 4 percent in engineering in the first half of 2003, and more than 5 percent in the computer and mathematical occupations. Overall unemployment in the nation ran about 6 percent.)

What about forecasts of future shortages? A 2000 National Research Council panel found that earlier dire predictions had not panned out. The truth is, Teitelbaum says, “no one can know what the U.S. economy and its science and technology sectors will look like in 2010.”

He sees naked self-interest behind the doomsayers’ warnings: Universities want students; employers want to keep the wages of scientists and engineers down; and government agencies want to restrain the costs of research.

If the alarms prompt Washington to encourage more foreign students to fill the supposed gap, Teitelbaum points out, the result could be a surplus of scientists and engineers, depressing wages. That would make science and engineering less attractive to young Americans—just what the critics say they don’t want.

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