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A new report from the National Science Board warns that a continuing admissions decline among graduate programs in science and engineering may lead to a shortage of skilled workers that could hurt the economy.

The findings were detailed last month in "Science and Engineering Indicators," a report issued every two years by the National Science Board. The information was gathered by the National Science Foundation, which is overseen by the board.

The enrollment in graduate-school science programs fell each year from 1993 to 1997 (the latest year for which data are available), the report says, following four decades of annual increases. Lobbyists for higher education and research blamed a drop in the number of foreign-born students, the surging economy, and a lack of faculty openings, among other factors, for the declining enrollments.

"I think there's a very large national problem with the potential inadequacy of the science-and-engineering work force as it relates to the needs of the country," said Eamon M. Kelly, chairman of the science board.

The number of foreign-born researchers earning Ph.D.'s in science declined by 15 percent in 1997, the first annual decline in 10 years, according to the report.

That statistic shows that American colleges can't expect to rely on a large influx of foreign researchers to fill faculty openings, Mr. Kelly said. Japan and China, among other countries, are improving their graduate programs to keep their best scientists, he said.

Over all, graduate enrollment in science and engineering was 407,644 in 1997, down from 435,886 in 1993, a 6.5-percent decrease, according to the report. Enrollment in engineering programs fell by 2 percent, and similar drops were seen in the social and natural sciences.

On the other hand, the report showed that women are going to graduate school in greater numbers. Female enrollment, even though rising less than 1 percent in 1997, continued 20 years of annual increases. Forty percent of all students seeking master's degrees or Ph.D.'s in science in 1997 were women.

The report also showed, however, that members of minority groups make up only a small part of the enrollment in graduate science and engineering programs. Only 5 percent of graduate students in science programs are black, and fewer than 4 percent are Hispanic.

Some college lobbyists say lucrative work in a surging economy is too alluring to many minority students, just as it is to others.

"It's hard to justify getting a master's degree when you can get a good job with a bachelor's degree," said Frank L. Huband, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education. He also criticized the science foundation for not getting more-recent data. "N.S.F. is remarkably slow in getting its numbers," he said.

Even so, the report "takes the temperature of the health of science in the United States," said Peter D. Syverson, vice president for research at the Council of Graduate Schools.

He is concerned that fewer people are entering graduate school. "I have not yet heard people talking about this as if it is a crisis," he said. "But I expect sometime down the road, people will talk about enhancing recruiting," he added.

Some researchers are skipping graduate school because they have seen that it is increasingly difficult to gain faculty positions at colleges, said Eleanor L. Babco, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. Professors are waiting longer to retire, making openings scarcer, she noted. "Students were finding the Ph.D. degree wasn't the ticket into a research position."

In 1997, only 22.9 percent of new Ph.D. recipients -- those who had earned their degrees in four to six years -- were in tenured or tenure-track positions, the report said. In 1993, the total was 26.6 percent.

Mr. Kelly, of the science board, called for "a revitalization of math-and-science education" from elementary school through college. "That will create more interest and excitement for pursuing graduate schools and going for Ph.D.'s," he said.

-- RON SOUTHWICK

Copyright (c) 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on Science's Next Wave. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without express permission from The Chronicle. To obtain such permission, please send a message to permission@chronicle.com. For subscription information, send a message to circulation@chronicle.com.