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Beryl Lieff Benderly

More Good News on Science Education

As Jeffrey Mervis reported on our sister blog Science Insider on 1 June, a recent report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) found a sharp increase in the number of Americans pursuing graduate education in science.  Their number, in fact, now “stands at an all-time high.”

And now, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to school children, comes more good news: a “statistically significant increase” in the scores of America’s eighth graders, report Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell in USA Today.

In the face of so much actual data, you’d think it would be hard for prognosticators of catastrophic shortages of scientific and technical personnel to keep up the ceaseless drumbeat of doom.  But, as Berezow and Campbell astutely point out, the tradition of complaining about American educational mediocrity goes back decades–and overlaps with the recent decades when Americans created Silicon Valley, biotechnology, and other major advances. Could it be, they ask, that test scores aren’t the best indicator or a nation’s ability to produce innovation?   And year after year, NSF’s authoritative Science and Engineering Indicators finds that the U.S. graduates three times as many Americans with degrees in STEM fields as the economy can absorb into STEM occupations.

Notwithstanding all this evidence, reports of a major deficit in the supply of STEM workers” appear with regularity, as, for example, in a blog post by Jonathan Rothwell of Brookings institution published the same day as Mervis’s item in Science Insider.  Rothwell bases his dire predictions of shortage in part on the numbers of job openings advertised by tech companies.  But, as experts have repeatedly told Science Careers, such ads may not represent true vacancies; instead they can be part of industry campaigns to justify hiring more low-paid temporary foreign workers.  Rothwell also notes that the top graduates of the best programs are in great demand–but that says nothing about the overall job market.  Each year’s handful of stars always find excellent opportunities. And increasing the sheer number of people entering science doesn’t necessarily increase the number of top candidates; in fact, by crowding the profession and making it less desirable, larger numbers overall may lead the best people to make different career choices. 

As Berezow and Campbell note, echoing a point made by such experts as economist Paula Stephan, in evaluating claims of shortage it’s important to consider the economic interests of those making them.  Mervis expresses cautious optimism that actual facts may eventually influence the overheated discussion about the nation’s supposed science talent dearth.  Call me cynical, but I’m less hopeful that accuracy will prevail.  The economic stakes involved in increasing the supply of scientific and technical workers to keep wages low are enormous– likewise, the economic stakes involved in increasing funding for universities and schools at all levels.  But, as we’ve also mentioned repeatedly, increasing the number of people in a field depresses incomes, which reduces incentives for the very best people–who have a wide range of career options–to choose that field. 

Better science and technical education is always desirable and should be supported. But that is not the same thing as saying that we have an abundance of good jobs and career opportunities for people with STEM training or a serious shortage of people capable of filling the openings that really exist.  Just ask all the scientists and engineers currently trying to find those openings.