Reposted from Science magazine, 30 May 2003

The federal government needs to take action on several fronts to guarantee an adequate supply of U.S. scientific workers, according to a new report by the National Science Board. The report calls for a variety of measures, ranging from better salaries for public school science and math teachers to increased funding for basic research. But the quickest payoff, it says, could come from efforts by universities to bolster retention rates among undergraduates who declare an interest in earning science and engineering (S&E) degrees.

"It will require a culture change within departments," says biologist George Langford of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, chair of the board's education panel. "But if we succeed in improving the climate for undergraduate and graduate students, we can have a dramatic impact [on the number of students trained for scientific careers] by 2010." Making the most of homegrown talent is even more important in today's global economy, adds National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Rita Colwell, who says "we've become overly dependent on the global workforce."

The board, a presidentially appointed oversight body for NSF, has spent nearly 3 years on the report, which remains untitled and in draft form ( www.nsf.gov/nsb). It avoids such controversial terms as "shortage" and "shortfall" (Science, 16 May, p. 1070), opting instead for the more nuanced concept of "underproduction" in warning of "a likely decline" in the number of "native-born science and engineering graduates."


A matter of degrees. Women and most minority groups are less likely to earn natural science and engineering degrees than the population as a whole. SOURCE: NSF, 2002

The report laments "the movement of undergraduate students out of S&E fields and into other majors." It also says that women and minorities are "underused resources" and notes that the country "may not be able to rely on the international labor market" to meet its needs.

The board's message dovetails with recent reports by other science policy bodies, including the National Academies' Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable and the nonprofit Building Engineering and Science Talent. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is expected to add its voice to the chorus: It has just embarked on a similar study due out next year.

The report calls for increased spending and attention at every point in the pipeline, with an emphasis on programs aimed at broadening participation among underrepresented groups and reducing attrition. Langford says the board refrained from attaching any price tags until "all the stakeholders"--other federal agencies, the university community, state and local education officials, and industry--have weighed in. "We've talked with [presidential science adviser] Jack Marburger about the need for a sizable federal investment, and he didn't seem concerned. It will definitely cost a lot of money."

Ralph Gomory, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, applauds the board's focus on the undergraduate years. "It's more amenable to fixing than K-12 education," he notes. Marye Anne Fox, chancellor of North Carolina State University in Raleigh and a PCAST member, agrees that "the freshman year is critical" for keeping promising students on the scientific track. She says that successful techniques include a shift from lectures to hands-on activities, more research opportunities, smaller class sizes, and better mentoring and career counseling.

In calling for more S&E workers, Langford acknowledges the rising unemployment rates in most high-tech fields. But he labels them a "temporary condition." What's more important, he says, is having enough talent on hand to take full advantage of science's role as "the engine for U.S. economic growth and national security."

Jeffrey Mervis is a senior correspondent for Science magazine.