Archive for May 1st, 2012

Schmientist Shortage

What Scientist Shortage?

But what “we all know,” as Senator Cornyn put it, turns out not to be true—and the perpetuation of this myth is discouraging Americans from pursuing scientific careers. Leading experts on the STEM workforce, including Richard Freeman of Harvard, Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Paula Stephan of Georgia State University, Hal Salzman of Rutgers, Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown, and Norman Matloff of the University of California-Davis, have said for years that the US produces ample numbers of excellent science students. In fact, according to the National Science Board’s authoritative publication Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, the country turns out three times as many STEM degrees as the economy can absorb into jobs related to their majors.

One of the answers, from later in the article,

The public perception of a dearth of homegrown talent has shaped national policy, permitting companies and universities to import tens of thousands of foreign scientists and IT workers who toil for artificially low wages.

I think it’s important to properly define what we’re talking about. Are we talking about a shortage of domestic STEM workers? Because that could still be the case, and we’ve simply saturated the market with imported workers.

The subtitle of the article is “The Johnny-can’t-do-science myth damages US research”, which seems to be much more about scientific literacy than science as a career, which seems to me to be a distinct issue and makes arguments somewhat muddled right off the bat. Acceptance of science such as evolution and climate change are abysmal, and I think science literacy levels reflect that. Even if one were to accept that we don’t need more scientists, that does not mean we need less science education.

The author cites Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, but doesn’t give any specific citation for the claim for the 3X too many STEM graduates.

I find this tidbit in the highlights for chapter 3

Between 1980 and 2000, the total number of S&E degrees earned grew at an average annual rate of 1.5%, which was faster than labor force growth, but less than the 4.2% growth of S&E occupations. The loose fit between degrees and occupations and the immigration of S&E workers helped to account for the different rates of degree and occupation growth.

which supports the idea that we have a shortage.

There’s also this, from the “Labor Market Conditions for Recent S&E Graduates” section

At the bachelor’s degree level, across all S&E fields, the IOF [in other field] rate was 11.5%, but ranged from 3.6% for recent engineering bachelor’s graduates to 15.7% in the social sciences. In all fields of degree, the IOF rate decreases with level of education, reaching 2.9% for recent doctorate recipients.

Nothing close to 2/3 of STEM recipients working outside of their field, according to these numbers. (I wonder if this is merely the “the only acceptable job for a PhD is to be a professor” canard.)

However, I wonder if that even matters. Is a Literature major a failure if s/he does not get a job involving reading all day? Colleges are not vocational schools.

American college students have for decades shown strong and consistent interest in STEM; year after year, just under a third of all college students in this country earn degrees in those subjects. But, ironically, dismal career prospects drive many of the best of those students to more promising professions, such as medicine, law, or finance.

I think this is just a gross misrepresentation of reality. Anyone who aspires to a career in medicine or law goes to a school requiring an undergraduate degree. For those who drop out of pre-med, many of them don’t stay in the science field, so it’s not fair to characterize medical students as disillusioned scientists — they wanted to be doctors, which says nothing about how they arrived at that decision. Which raises the question about lawyers who majored in science — perhaps patent law was their goal all along. The reporter didn’t ask, so we don’t know.

The author also cites testimony from Ronil Hira, during a Senate hearing

Contrary to some of the discussion here this morning, the STEM job market is mired in a jobs recession…with unemployment rates…two to three times what we would expect at full employment….Loopholes have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers with ordinary skills…to directly substitute for, rather than complement, American workers. The programs are clearly displacing and denying opportunities to American workers.

I agree with the effect, but no numbers are cited. STEM unemployment is usually lower than for the general public, so having 2-3x the rate when the general population is also having a similar (or larger) increase in their unemployment rate is not exactly a smoking gun for having a glut of scientists.

Beyond all this, there was a recent set of discussions about employment life in Phd-land. Comrade Physioprof says “Overproduction of PhDs” Is Demonstrably False. Mike the Mad Biologist and Chemjobber disagree, citing a flat salary curve. Once again, I have to say that the problem hasn’t been properly phrased. The flat salary points to saturation, but when you have more than one source — domestic and foreign — you can’t trace this back to domestic overproduction. It’s one equation with two unknowns. Consider, however, this note from the “highlights” section of the Science and Engineering Indicators 2008:

About half of S&E doctorate holders in U.S. postdoc positions may have earned their doctorates outside of the United States.

About half! I would argue from this that the domestic supply of scientists is indeed short of the mark, if we have to bring this many in from abroad. I’m sure that academia and industry like the salary competition from this, but it would seem that any oversupply that we have is not because we are producing too many at our own universities.