01/03/2008 01:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On the Supply of Scientists and Engineers

In my previous blog, I reported on the job conditions that make people steer clear of science and engineering--low salaries, difficulties in getting tenure, etc. In this one I want to deal with the supply side as described in a study by Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University and Harold Salzman of the Urban Institute, "Into the Eye of the Storm." No doubt this paper was so-named to combat the fatuous title released by the National Academy of Science, Rising Above the Gathering Storm (that title steals from Churchill whose The Gathering Storm, described events leading up to World War II).

The conventional wisdom is that the putative shortage of scientists and engineers lies in mediocre math and science education as manifest in test scores. But Lowell and Salzman observe that American kids test as well as or better than they did 20 years ago. SAT math scores have risen most years since 1982. The students also take more math and science courses. In 1982, high school graduates had taken on average 2.6 math courses and 2.2 science courses. In 1998 the figures were 3.5 and 3.2. College Board data show increases in the percentage of students taking precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics.

And, the researchers observe, the tests are reported in terms of average scores. There are more than enough students who score well in math and science to fill the few S&E (Science and Engineering) jobs that open up each year. There are several times as many qualified college grads as there are job openings each year. "If there is a problem, it is not one of too few S&E qualified college graduates, but, rather, the inability of S&E firms to attract qualified graduates."

In passing, the researchers make an important point: international comparisons are usually reported solely in terms of ranks. This obscures the fact that the actual scores are often very close. The most dramatic instance of this occurred in the 1995 TIMSS when American students got 58% of the items right compared to the international average of 56%. This ranked them 19th among the 41 nations. If American students had managed to get just 5% more items correct they would have jumped all the way to 5th. If they had gotten 5% more wrong, they would have fallen all the way to 30th.

It is also the case that the test scores reflect the combined experiences of school, home and community--they don't uniquely reflect school quality. As I showed in my February 22, 2007 blog, "Worst Place to Be a Kid," the United States finished 20th of 21 developed nations in low quality of life and was dead last in terms of percent of children in poverty. If we're last in poverty we can't be first in test scores.

Tongues often cluck over the percentage of S&E degrees that go to students from other nations. This leads critics to say that American kids just aren't interested in science anymore. But the graphs Lowell and Salzman display show that the number of S&E degrees earned by citizens or permanent residents has risen. For bachelor's and masters it has gone from about 55,000 in 1977 to 400,000 in 2002. For doctorates, the number grew from about 15,000 to almost 100,000.

If one looks at the supply and demand side of S&E simultaneously, one finds that the U.S. graduates about 3 students with degrees in S&E for every one new job (this figure doesn't include the job openings that occur because of retirements).

If the high schools were doing a poor job in math and science, one might expect that kids couldn't cut it in S&E programs. In fact, research finds that most dropouts from S&E programs occur because of dissatisfaction with the quality of instruction or other program shortcomings.

Lowell and Salzman pronounce themselves surprised at the high attrition rate from the field. One to two years after obtaining a bachelor's degree in S&E, 20 percent of the graduates are in school, but not in S&E programs while 45% are working, but not in S&E jobs. That's a total of 65% in two years. Makes you wonder why people scream so much about the 50% attrition of teachers in 5 years.

It's a clear, well-reasoned piece which can be seen at Click on publications in the "labor market" category. Now if only some of the fear-mongering policy makers would read it and take it to heart.