THE RISKS OF A DECLINING S&E WORKFORCE
What are the consequences of these demographic shifts that threaten the adequacy of the national S&E workforce? The risks are real. The nation risks losing a favorable trade balance, and becoming vulnerable to the unexpected, such as a major energy crisis, a national health emergency, a military threat, or terrorist attack. A decline in the availability of foreign workers would compound these risks.
The nation risks losing international, business, and economic leadership. If the S&E workforce is inadequate to need, the nation’s innovation engine will slow, curtailing U.S. competitiveness in a global economy that is revving up with unprecedented vigor. Bill Joyce, CEO of Hercules Incorporated, has summarized the situation:
“If there are not enough trained people in the U.S., corporations will have to move R&D operations to countries where the trained people are. The pilot plant follows, because you need the R&D people nearby to help make it work. The manufacturing plant follows the pilot plant. Distribution, sales, and management follow the manufacturing. Once this process is started, it is not reversible. Corporations may not like it, but they will survive if there is no R&D in the U.S. The U.S. economy, however, will not recover from the loss of this business.28
Advances in the physical sciences will decline. Capability in basic science is essential to the three major emergent areas of research and innovation: biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology. Because of substantial budgetary shifts favoring the life sciences, losses in the physical sciences are magnified. The share of federal funding devoted to the physical sciences experienced a 17.7 percent decline from 1993 to 1999.29 Ironically,
the overwhelming majority—74.2 percent—of industrial R&D performed in the United States is based in the physical sciences, math, and engineering fields and requires workers with training in those backgrounds.30
The Director of the National Science Foundation, Rita Colwell, has said,
“This message has to be shouted. It can’t continue. We’re down 23-25 percent in math and physics, which is clearly a serious situation.”
The nation risks losing essential technological expertise. With the pending retirements of older S&E professionals, the nation will lose experts in key disciplines, for example high-energy physics and nuclear engineering.
The nation’s security-sensitive systems are at risk. A dearth of educated U.S. citizens in sensitive technical areas (e.g., nuclear engineering, hypersonics) carries clear and specific national security risks. National technological superiority is part of the foundation of our present military strategy. John Marburger, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has cited the “Hart-Rudman Report” in support of this thesis. The Commission’s work has focused on how American science and technology, as well as education in science and technology, can and should be revitalized to better support the nation’s security needs and interests.31
In many western nations, government adopts a laissez-faire posture toward science and engineering talent development, relying on a market-based approach to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers. The United States can no longer afford to be so complacent.