November 20, 2003

THE NATION Federal Aid Urged to Boost the Domestic Workforce in Science
More U.S. engineering and other technical jobs are being done by foreigners, a study finds.

WASHINGTON - Greater federal assistance is needed to bolster the country's shrinking native-born science and engineering workforce and to encourage more U.S. college students to pursue careers in these fields, the National Science Foundation said Wednesday.

The percentage of college-educated scientists and engineers who are working in the U.S. but were born elsewhere jumped from 14% in 1990 to 22% in 2000, a foundation study of workforce trends reported. The study also found that among professionals with doctorates in science or engineering who were working in the United States, almost 40% were foreign-born in 2000, compared with 24% in 1990.

Furthermore, women, African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are less likely than white men to obtain undergraduate degrees in science and engineering, according to the study, which was issued by the National Science Board, the foundation's governing body.

"The number of native-born [professionals] entering the workforce is likely to decline unless the nation intervenes," said Joseph A. Miller, chairman of the National Science Foundation's task force on workforce policies.

Miller said a national investment in "human capital and capabilities" must be made to spur domestic growth in science and technical fields.

"It is important for the federal government to step forward to ensure the adequacy of [a] science and engineering workforce," he said.

In addition, efforts to attract students, particularly women and minorities, to become scientists and engineers must start in high schools with stronger programs in math, science and technology, officials said.

The study also showed that the number of H-1B visas, which allow companies to sponsor foreign employees with specialized skills for up to six years, had dropped in 2002 compared with 2000 largely because of the economic downturn, officials said. But, the study noted, U.S. dependence on foreign labor without developing a highly skilled domestic workforce is problematic.

"We cannot subsist on a diet of imported aptitude," said Rita R. Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation. Nurturing careers in science and engineering among U.S.-born professionals would "ensure the continued preeminence of this country in the future," she added.

At the same time, immigration policies should continue to let a national and a foreign workforce interact, Colwell said.

"This is not a xenophobic response," she said. Not balancing the labor market with domestic workers, she added, would "cheat our nation on its future."