Scientist shortage? Maybe not

Educators and others have been clamoring for more funding for math and science since the Soviets sent Sputnik into orbit in 1957. The push continued in the 1980s, when the National Science Foundation joined top universities to warn of "looming shortfalls" in science and engineering workers, even as employment data showed a surplus. That prompted then-Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican, to call the predictions "the equivalent to shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater."

The push picked up speed in 2005 with a key National Research Council report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm.

Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates told Congress last year U.S. companies "face a severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs. … If we don't reverse these trends, our competitive advantage will erode."

But John Marburger, who was George W. Bush's top science adviser, says it's a mistake to think of "scientists" or "engineers" as a generic job classification — or that Americans should fret over shortages overall.

"We definitely need more computer scientists and some kinds of electrical engineers," he says. "We need more technicians of all kinds. We probably do not need more string theorists, but we do need more physicists and chemists working on exotic materials."

Lynne Munson, executive director of Common Core, a Washington non-profit that supports liberal-arts education in public schools, says it's not even clear whether the emphasis on STEM skills has produced more scientists and mathematicians. "We'd argue that you're more likely to get people excelling in all fields if they're given a rich, comprehensive education from the start," she says. "You want more physicists? Make sure kids are getting literature and history."

In 2007, amid a renewed push in Congress to get more taxpayer funding for science teachers — and more student aid for science and engineering majors — Teitelbaum told lawmakers that no objective data have found overall shortages of scientists and engineers.

Such warnings, he said, are "simply the expressions of interests by interest groups and their lobbyists." He cited companies that employ scientists and engineers, universities, and even immigration lawyers.

Limited growth possible

Rapid increases in federal funding for research and education, Teitelbaum said, are "more likely than not to further destabilize career paths for junior scientists," as more funding will generate "substantial growth" in slots for graduate students but only limited growth in the number of career scientific positions down the line.

John Holdren, Obama's science adviser, disagrees.

He says he's "optimistic that the jobs for them will materialize."

"Obviously we've suffered in the past from a boom-and-bust syndrome in funding for science and technology," he says, "and we're looking to try to avoid that going forward."

Holdren says he has considered "the size of the pipeline vs. the size of the market," but he and other administration advisers are convinced the USA needs more — not fewer — scientists and engineers. "More and more the challenges we face are going to require big infusions of science and technology to get solved."

In his National Academies speech, for example, Obama pointed to energy and climate as areas needing infusions of scientific talent.

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