Rising Above ‘The Gathering Storm’

In the past few years, reports by several prestigious bodies have warned that an impending shortage of scientists, engineers, and technical personnel at least partly caused by inadequate K-12 science education threatens the nation’s long-standing scientific leadership in an increasingly competitive, globalized world. With American prosperity dependent on innovation, the studies warn, the nation’s economic future is at risk.

The U.S. National Academies published the most influential of these documents, , to considerable fanfare in 2005. It called for more undergraduate and graduate science scholarships, new programs to train science teachers, more research funding, and more foreign scientists to be admitted to this country. Earlier this year, Congress enacted the first three recommendations in the America COMPETES Act.

Now, however, a new study and related congressional testimony call into question this picture of America’s educational system and scientific work force., released in October by the Urban Institute (UI), a policy-research organization in Washington, D.C., retains the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ report’s meteorological metaphor but rejects its analysis and conclusions . “The education system produces qualified graduates far in excess of demand. … Workforce development and education policy requires a more thorough analysis than appears to be guiding current policy reports,” Eye of the Storm states.

No disadvantage for the United States

“U.S. schools show steady improvement in math and science, the U.S. is not at any particular disadvantage compared to most nations, and the supply of S&E [science and engineering] graduates is large and ranks among the best internationally,” continues Eye, which was co-authored by two labor force experts, B. Lindsay Lowell, director of Policy Studies for the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Harold Salzman of UI’s Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population.

Nor do today’s young Americans show less interest in science than previous generations, according to Eye of the Storm. “The proportion of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in S&E has been relatively stable over time, as has the proportion of freshmen in an S&E major,” the report states. About three times as many Americans hold scientific degrees as work in scientific jobs. Science education does need improvement, Eye argues, but of a different form from that suggested in Gathering Storm.

Based on these findings, any shortage in America’s scientific labor market is “most likely a demand-side problem of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] career opportunities that are less attractive than career opportunities in other fields” rather than a supply-side problem of too few Americans with scientific training, asserted Salzman in congressional testimony presented on 6 November before the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation. “The standard education measures indicate there are enough students with requisite skills to succeed in science and engineering courses of study, and managers we have interviewed rarely if ever note a lack of technical skills among their STEM workers,” he continued.

On the contrary, Eye of the Storm states that “a weakening demand, a comparative decline in S&E wages, and market signals to students about low relative wages in S&E occupations” are discouraging able Americans from pursing scientific and technical careers. Rather than indicating a dearth of scientists, “research finds that the real wages in S&E occupations declined over the past two decades”–the opposite of what one would expect during a labor shortage.

Contrary to reported decline, both the number and the level of achievement of American high school science students have risen in recent decades, Eye continues .High schoolers on average now take a year more of both science and math than they did in the 1980s, and the number of students taking algebra by eighth grade has markedly increased. America’s apparently mediocre national averages on international tests reflect not uniformly poor performance, Eye argues, but rather the enormous diversity of our school population, which exceeds that of nearly every other competing country.

Close analysis of test results reveals that “the majority of U.S. students (white students) actually rank near the very top on international tests.” Social and economic inequality, not just formal instruction, strongly affects test scores, and “achievement is known to vary significantly by socioeconomic class and race.” Educational improvement efforts, Eye concludes, should focus not on correcting a nonexistent overall deficit but on improving the academic performance of the students “in the lower portion of the performance distribution,” many of whom face social and familial challenges that interfere with their education.

“Largely inconsistent with the facts”

Gathering Storm’s image of mediocrity and shortage has become the “conventional portrait” of American scientific education and labor power that dominates media and political discussions, in the words of Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, New York, another witness at the 6 November hearing. That picture, however, is “largely inconsistent with the facts,” he testified. Labor market data are “suggestive of surpluses” of scientists, with only “isolated shortages of skilled people in narrow fields or in specific technologies.” In reality, “substantially more scientists and engineers graduate from U.S. universities than can find attractive career openings in the U.S. work force [and] the postdoc population, which has grown very rapidly in U.S. universities and is recruited increasingly from abroad, looks more like a pool of low-cost research lab workers with limited career prospects than a high-quality training program for soon-to-be academic researchers,” he continued.

Eye of the Storm is hardly the first study to note such inconsistencies. “There are many researchers and organizations that have developed this set of understandings of what is actually happening–for example, leading researchers at the Rand Corporation, Harvard University, National Bureau of Economic Research, … Georgia State University, Stanford University,” and others, Teitelbaum told the congressional committee. Even as major media figures such as New York Times columnist and megaselling “flat-world” guru Thomas Friedman were trumpeting Gathering Storm’s conclusions, experts in labor-power economics and research administration were voicing less publicized doubts about any purported dearth of well-trained U.S. science graduates.

In 2005, for example–the same year that Gathering Storm was published–the National Academies also published, which received far less publicity.Produced by a committee of bioscience researchers chaired by Nobel laureate Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, it bemoaned the damage done to the vitality of American science by the growing glut of young bioscience Ph.D.s.

The existence of two conflicting narratives about America’s education and scientific labor market, each put forward by prominent and respected scientific figures, reveals a deep discontinuity in perceptions of what is going on in science. The discrepancy, some observers suggest, reveals less about the data points cited on the two sides of the debate than it does about the points of view of those doing the analysis.

This is the first of two articles on the conflictingreports. Part 2 will be published on 4 January 2008.

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Photo. Top: C. Clark, NOAA

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