Math and Science Brain Drain?

October 14, 2005

There has been much wringing of hands and speech making about perceived declines in the number and quality of Americans prepared to work and do research in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and the implications of that trend for the country's standing in the world economy. A federal report released Thursday aims to lay out exactly what federal programs are in place to educate and produce technologically skilled graduates and what might be done to prime the pump.

The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which is Congress's main investigative arm, may raise more questions than it answers, in part because the numbers don't look too bad.

It finds, for instance, that 13 federal agencies spent a total of $2.8 billion in 2004 on programs designed, at least in part, to "increase the numbers of students and graduates pursuing STEM degrees and occupations or improve educational programs in STEM fields." About half of the programs and about two-thirds of the funds were through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

In addition, from the 1995-96 academic year to the 2003-4 academic year, the report finds, the number of students enrolled in science, technology, and math fields increased by 21 percent (compared to an increase of 11 percent in other fields), and the proportion of all students enrolled in STEM disciplines rose to 23 percent from 21 percent. There were even increases in the number of students from underrepresented minority groups in the fields – the representation of African American students grew by 69 percent and of Hispanic students by 33 percent, the study reveals.

But those overall statistics mask some problems. Most of the growth in the number of students enrolled in scientific fields occurred among bachelor’s and master’s degree students, while the number of students enrolled in doctoral programs in those fields actually declined, as evident in the following table:

Students Enrolled in STEM Fields, by Level

  1995-96 2003-4
Bachelor's 2,218,510 2,876,721
Master's 321,293 403,200
Doctoral 217,395 198,504

The GAO study also suggests that insufficient evidence is available to gauge the effectiveness of the programs on which the various agencies are now spending $2.8 billion.

Based on interviews with officials at numerous colleges and agencies, as well as some representative students, the report offers several suggestions for encouraging more students to go into STEM fields and ensuring that they come out of college better prepared. They included:

  • Mandating more and better mathematics and science courses in high school.
  • Improving the quality of teacher education and preparation in scientific disciplines.
  • Offering more outreach to women and minority students during the elementary and secondary years, and to community college students.
  • Enhancing the role of the federal government in creating a national agenda for science and technology education and providing more funds for academic research, perhaps along the lines of the National Defense Education Act of 1958.         

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