Challenging Conventional Wisdom on STEM Supply

President’s advisory panel on science and technology hears suggestion that there is no shortage, just an expected cycle.
September 17, 2008

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology tackled some familiar questions Tuesday, such as how to boost the number of students in technical fields and how to encourage more partnerships between colleges and the private sector. But not all of their answers fell neatly in line with conventional wisdom.

Most surprising was a presentation challenging the idea — much embraced in academe, business and government — that there aren’t enough skilled experts being produced in science and technology.

Michael S. Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, looked at what he called five “mysteries” of the STEM work force issue. For example, why do employers claim a shortage of qualified STEM graduates while prospects for Ph.D.s remain “poor"? Why do retention and completion rates for STEM fields remain low compared with students’ aspirations? Why is there a “serious” funding crisis at the National Institutes of Health after its budget doubled from 1998 to 2003?

Looking at whether there is a shortage of qualified STEM workers, Teitelbaum argued that such claims reappear roughly every 10 years. In the late 1980s, he said, speculations of looming shortfalls were “wildly wrong,” while successful lobbying in the late 1990s to triple the number of H-1B visas to fulfill a supposed shortage coincided with the IT bust — and a resulting collapse in demand for workers — in 2001.

More recently, he said, similar claims are arising with testimony from heavy hitters in the technology sector such as Bill Gates — but still, he argued, the evidence doesn’t support the view that there is a shortage of scientists or engineers. A shortage of workers would imply an increase in wages, but remuneration remains flat; in general, he said, there is significant variation over time and by field, with a mix of “hot” fields and “slack” markets.

Teitelbaum also questioned why federal spending supports Ph.D. completion despite the lack of demand for such degrees by non-academic employers, who mainly look for bachelor’s or master’s degrees. In effect, he said, the “self-defeating” practice of funding science education via research grants creates a “mismatch” between graduates and employers.

Another mismatch — between the amount of available funding and the sheer size of research facilities and their staffs — came to pass, he said, after NIH funding reached its goal of a 100-percent increase in 2003. During that period, the success rate for research grants first increased, then decreased to below the pre-doubling level as the number of applications went up. That trend is especially pronounced for younger and first-time investigators. Institutions also ramped up their research facilities in anticipation of expected increases, leading to a “hard landing” when funding started to flatten again.

“I think the problems here are structural. We have positive feedbacks in this system,” he said. “[T]hey magnify the booms and the busts, and it’s because I think Ph.D’.s and postdocs in biomedical sciences are funded primarily by research grant funding, not training grant funding.”

As a potential solution Teitelbaum recommends an increase in basic research funding, but structured to address those distorted incentives. Funding should focus on increasing the number of graduate postdoctoral fellowships and training grants, and finance fewer research assistants through research grants, for example, and the NIH should boost its support of staff researchers.

To address the unpredictable changes in funding levels from year to year — and to avoid possible overreactions by research institutions anticipating drastic increases or decreases — Teitelbaum suggested stabilization mechanisms and buffer funding to avoid sharp accelerations or decelerations in federal dollars.

And rather than pushing students toward Ph.D.’s — which are geared toward those pursuing academic research careers — Teitelbaum touted the effectiveness of professional science master’s (PSM) degrees for science professionals with business and innovation skills, which more closely match what many employers are looking for from graduates in STEM fields. So far, he said there were 117 such programs in the United States at over 60 universities in 25 states.

“I would say the progress is real, but these are still new and fragile degrees, and the Sloan Foundation’s goal is to make this degree a normal part of U.S. higher education,” he said.

Teitelbaum’s presentation, and others, inspired a discussion by the members of the president’s council. Robert A. Brown, president of Boston University, pointed out that the decline in proposals accepted for funding had nothing to do with graduate students but with the increase in faculty and lead investigators as a result of the doubling in NIH funding. Teitelbaum essentially agreed, noting that the decline coincided with an increase in applications — all stemming from the boost in basic research funding.


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