National Science Panel Warns of Far Too Few New Scientists
May 5, 2004
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
The United States faces a major shortage of scientists
because too few Americans are entering technical fields and
because international competition is heating up for bright
foreigners who once filled the gap, a federal panel warned
"I fear irreversible damage can be done," Robert C.
Richardson, a Nobel laureate in physics and a member of the
panel, said at a news conference in Washington, adding that
he found the personnel trends "quite disturbing."
Warren M. Washington, chairman of the panel, the National
Science Board, said the nation was in "a long-distance
race" to maintain its edge in human scientific resources.
"For many years we have benefited from minimal competition
in the global science and engineering labor market," he
said. "But attractive and competitive alternatives are now
expanding around the world."
The solution, Dr. Washington added, is for the United
States to work harder at developing its own scientific
talent. But a board report shows declining interest among
young Americans in science careers.
The board, a 24-member federal advisory panel established
by Congress, released its report, "An Emerging and Critical
Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force," as a
companion to "Science and Engineering Indicators 2004," a
detailed analysis of science trends it publishes every two
years. The National Science Foundation, a federal agency
that the board oversees, released both reports on Tuesday
at its headquarters in Arlington, Va.
The board in its report noted "a troubling decline" in the
number of Americans training to be scientists and said such
trends "threaten the economic welfare and security of our
The recruitment problem, the report said, grows out of the
nation's economic success and the rising demand for
employees trained in science and engineering. For decades,
such jobs have grown faster than overall employment. They
went to 3.8 percent of civilian jobs from 2.6 percent
between 1983 and 2002, according to the new indicators.
Unchecked, the trends in technical employment will leave a
dearth of scientists to meet the rising demand, the board
report said. At best, it added, the number of United States
citizens qualified for science and engineering jobs could
But interest in such careers is falling compared with
elsewhere. The 2004 report on indicators says the United
States ranks 17th among nations surveyed in the share of
its 18-to-24-year-olds who earn natural science and
engineering degrees, behind Taiwan and South Korea, Ireland
and Italy. In 1975, it was third.
Skilled foreigners have increasingly filled the gap: the
board report shows that 38 percent of all the nation's
scientists and engineers with doctorates are now foreign
But that inward flow is threatened, the board said, because
of new limits on the entry of highly educated foreigners
into the country and more intense global competition for
their skills. Visas granted to students, exchange visitors
and highly skilled foreigners dropped from 787,000 in 2001
to 625,000 last year. Visa applications have dropped as
At the same time, other countries, especially in Europe and
Asia, have realized that science and technology are crucial
to economic growth and prosperity and are rapidly catching
up to the United States in the pursuit of science
excellence. As a result, the numbers of foreigners who once
came to the United States to do science are expected to
"I don't think America is getting fat and lazy," Dr.
Richardson remarked. But he added that if the nation failed
to make the right investments soon, "we're going to be left
behind in a cloud of dust."