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UK Retailer Marks & Spencer’s Revenue Results Smacked by Website Woes

IT Hiccups of the Week

We concentrate this week’s edition of IT snarls, snags, and snafus on the lessons being learned the hard way by Marks & Spencer—the U.K.'s largest clothing retailer and one of the top five retailers in the country—on what happens when your online strategy goes awry. What makes this more than a run-of-the-mill website goes bad story, at least in the U.K., is that as London's Daily Mail put it late last year, “Marks & Spencer, to coin a phrase, is not just any shop. It is the British shop, as much a part of our cultural heritage as the Women’s Institute, the BBC and the Queen.”

M&S launched with great fanfare a new £150 million website in February as a primary means to stem declining sales and profitability, as well as accelerate the achievement of the 128–year old company’s objective of being an international multichannel retailer. However, last week, CEO Marc Bolland announced shortly before the company’s annual meeting that on-going “settling in” problems with its website contributed to an 8.1 percent drop in online sales over the previous quarter. The decline in online sales, which was more than expected, helped M&S chalk up its 12th quarter in a row of declining sales in its housewares and clothing division.

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Thousands of Bags Miss Flights at Heathrow Terminal 5 Again

IT Hiccups of the Week

Here's some glitch déjà vu from 2008, namely another baggage system miscue involving British Airways (BA) at Heathrow International Airport in London. As you may remember, in March 2008, BA and Heathrow operator British Airports Authority (now known as Heathrow Airport Holdings) opened the long-awaited BA Terminal 5 with great fanfare, with BAA loudly proclaiming the “world-class” baggage system was “tried, tested and ready to go.” No Denver International Airport baggage system-like problems for them! And BA's deservedly poor reputation as the top airline for losing luggage would finally be over.

Of course, such publicly-stated optimism over the reliability of automation is rarely left unpunished. Almost immediately, a massive meltdown of the baggage system on the first day of T5’s operation led to more than 28,000 passenger bags piled high across the terminal, hundreds more being lost, and some 15 percent of BA flights being cancelled over the course of nearly a week. It took three weeks before the majority of bags were reunited with passengers. The extreme embarrassment for both BA and Heathrow management because of the incident was acute, as was BA passenger rage, to say the least.

The nightmares of that week have slowly receded from BA passengers' memories. That is, until Friday, 27 June, when London papers like the Daily Mail reported that T5’s automated baggage system had suffered another major IT failure, with bags having to be handled manually again. As a result, thousands of BA passengers were sent (unknowingly) on their way without their luggage, including those passengers transiting through London via T5. The Mail quoted a BA spokesperson as saying, “On Thursday morning, the baggage system in Terminal 5 suffered an IT problem which affected how many bags could be accepted for each flight… We are very sorry for the difficulties this has caused and we have been working hard with the airport to make sure we reunite all of our customers with their luggage as quickly as possible.”

The BA spokesperson failed to point out that the phrase “how many bags could be accepted for each flight” actually meant no bags were accompanying their owners on an untold number of BA flights. BA also insisted to the press that they stop saying that passenger bags were lost; the bags merely “missed” their flights, BA pouted.  

A short two-paragraph Heathrow Airport Holdings press release did BA one better at trying to downplay the baggage system problem, stating that it affected only “some bags,” and that flights were in fact operating “normally.” You have to love press statements that are totally true but also totally disingenuous.

BA passengers on Thursday were naturally displeased at traveling without their bags, but at least they got to their destination, unlike those flying out of T5 last September, when another but very short-lived IT problem with the baggage system prevented hundreds of passengers from ever boarding their flights and had to be rebooked onto new ones, many the next day.

While BA passengers from June 27 were naturally miffed, what BA and Heathrow’s operator failed to make clear until early this week was that the “intermittent” IT problems with T5’s baggage system had actually begun on Thursday, 26 June and continued well into Sunday, 29 June. I am sure that many BA passengers flying out of T5 on June 28 and 29 would have changed airlines if they knew the full extent of the baggage problems. Conveniently, neither BA nor the airport operator came forward with the information about the multi-day operational problem until Tuesday, 1 July. Nor have they disclosed the total number of bags or passengers inconvenienced.

Both BA and Heathrow Airport Holdings are in damage control mode as BA passengers, many of them famous, have taken to social media to lambast them both. Many passengers, for example, have complained that when they finally did receive their bags, they had been ransacked with items stolen from them. Others complained that their journeys were over by the time their bags finally reached them.

BA put out another press release blaming international airline security rules for bags being opened as well as being delayed, and further promised to look into the ransacking claims. A BA spokesperson went on to apologize, stating that, “We are very sorry that this process is taking longer than anticipated, and we fully understand the frustration that this is causing.” Heathrow Airport Holdings new CEO John Holland-Kaye also apologized, saying the IT problem had taken too long to resolve and that airport needs “to do better.” Disclosing IT problems while they are occurring would be a good start.

The BA spokesperson went on to warn that it would still take “several days” before all the bags that “missed” their flights are reunited with their owners. BA also indicated that because of the number of bags involved, its bag tracking system was not working as it should, which could further add to the delays.

BA is reminding its customers flying out of T5 that, “You may wish to carry essential items in hand baggage where possible.” That is probably good advice. ComputerWorldUK reports that Heathrow Airport Holdings is remaining very tight-lipped over what caused the baggage system fault and why it took four days to fix it, which is rarely a good sign that everything is under control.

In Other News…

Florida’s DMV Computer System Back Online

Bombay Stock Exchange Recovers from Outage

New Zealand Exchange Suffers IT Glitch

DNS Error Hits British Telecom

Irish Drivers Avoid Parking Fines in County Clare Due to Computer Error

PayPal Error Blocks CERN and MIT anti-Spying ProtonMail Fundraising Efforts

Microsoft Anti-crime Operation Disrupts Legitimate Servers

UK Adult Content Filters Hit 20 Percent of Legal Popular Sites

Goldman Sachs Gets Court to Order Google to Block Misdirected Email

HHS IG Reports Say Federal and State Health Insurance Exchange Controls Very Weak


Outages Galore: Microsoft, Facebook, Oz Telecom Users are Unhappy Lot

IT Hiccups of the Week

We go on an IT Hiccups hiatus for a week and wouldn’t you know it, Facebook does a worldwide IT face plant for thirty minutes while mobile phone users of two of the three largest telecom providers in Australia, Optus and Vodafone, coincidentally suffer concurrent nationwide network outages for hours on the same day. Microsoft follows that with back-to-back Office 365-related outages, each lasting more than six plus hours. In addition, there were system operational troubles in Finland, India and New York to name but a few. So, we decided to focus this week’s edition of IT problems, snafus and snarls on the recent outbreak of reported service disruptions that happened around the world as well as those sincere sounding but ultimately vacuous apologies that always now accompany them. 

Our operational oofta review begins last Tuesday, when Microsoft’s Exchange Online was disrupted for some users starting from around 0630 to until almost 1630 or so East Coast time, leaving those affected without email, calendar and contact information capability. The disruption was somewhat embarrassing for Microsoft, which likes to tout that its cloud version of Office365 is effectively always available (or at least 99.9% of the time).

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French Hospital's Computer “Bug” Trashes a Fortune in Perfectly Good Drugs

IT Hiccups of the Week

Last week saw another wave of healthcare-related IT malfunctions, problems, and issues being reported. This time, we turn our focus to a controversy currently capturing the attention of the French press: the startling admission by administrators at the university hospital in Rennes that perfectly good drugs and other medical supplies are being trashed as a result of technical issues with its relatively new automated pharmacy system.

What first drew my attention to this story was an English-language story appearing at the International Business Times that claimed the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Rennes—better known as CHU—has sent a staggering €10 million worth of medicine and other medical paraphernalia to its incinerator because of a “computer bug” in the pharmacy distribution “robot” that was installed at the hospital in 2010. According to the IBT story—which claimed as its source an investigative story published in The Monthly Rennes—the “bug led to duplication and storage problems, which caused pallet-loads of medication to be destroyed.”

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900,000 Medi-Cal Applicants Stuck in California Healthcare Backlog Purgatory

IT Hiccups of the Week

Last week saw an emergency room full of healthcare-related IT problems, issues and challenges being reported.  We chose to concentrate this week’s edition of IT Hiccups on one which resembles a healthcare version of Hotel California where hundreds of thousands of California Medi-Cal health insurance applications have been checked in, but can’t seem to leave the confines of California government offices.

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Fat Finger Flub Takes Down Cloud Computing Datacenter

IT Hiccups of the Week

A wide variety of IT-related blips, failures, and mistakes occurred last week. However, the most interesting IT Hiccups related story involved what was described as a “fat finger” error by an operator at the cloud computing service provider Joyent’s US-East-1 datacenter in Ashburn, Virginia. It disrupted operations for all of Joyent’s datacenter customers for at least twenty minutes last Tuesday. For a small number of unlucky Joyent customers, the outage lasted 2.5 hours. 

According to a post-mortem note by a clearly embarrassed Joyent, “Due to an operator error, all us-east-1 API [application programming interface] systems and customer instances were simultaneously rebooted at 2014-05-27T20:13Z (13:13PDT).” The reason for the reboot, Joyent explained, was that a system operator along with other Joyent team members were “performing upgrades of some new capacity in our fleet, and they were using the tooling that allows for remote updates of software. The command to reboot the select set of new systems that needed to be updated was mis-typed, and instead specified all servers in the datacenter. Unfortunately the tool in question does not have enough input validation to prevent this from happening without extra steps/confirmation, and went ahead and issued a reboot command to every server in us-east-1 availability zone without delay.”

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1 Million Americans Likely Receiving Incorrect Federal Healthcare Subsidies

IT Hiccups of the Week

Last week saw an increase in the number and types of IT-related malfunctions, ooftas, and errors reported over the previous week. The most interesting IT Hiccups-related story of the lot was one from the Washington Post indicating that 3 million of the 8 million or so individuals enrolled for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act have a variety of “discrepancies” in their applications, including 1.1 million to 1.5 million applications with levels of income individuals are claiming that differ “significantly” with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) documents.

As a result, the Post estimates, the Obama Administration may be making improper subsidies payments for more than 1 million Americans to help pay for their health insurance plans, including hundreds of thousands likely receiving higher subsidy amounts than they are entitled. Furthermore, because of computer-related issues, it may be well into late summer before the situation can be rectified. As of today, the Administration has not lowered (or increased) anyone’s subsidy amount because of these discrepancies, the Post reports.  A person who is currently receiving too high a subsidy will be required to pay it back to the IRS by April 2015, however. Given that those receiving subsidies require low incomes in the first place, a person who is innocently getting too high a subsidy may be facing a massive, and potentially bankrupting, tax bill next year.

And for those found to be lying on their applications in an attempt to receive a higher subsidy than they deserve, not only are they going to get a nasty payment demand from the IRS,  but they also face a $250 000 civil fine. Even an “honest error” on an insurance enrollment application can result in a civil fine of $25 000, although I doubt that will ever be imposed, because it would be a surefire way to discourage lots of subsidy eligible individuals from signing up for health insurance.

Paying out health insurance subsidies (or even approving health insurance) without first fully verifying income (and other application information) was never supposed to happen. According to the original plan, the “back-end” office IT systems linking the different government agencies and departments such as the IRS, Department of Homeland Security, the Social Security Administration, the Veteran’s Administration,  and so on were to be in place by 1 October so that the income, immigration status, citizenship, age, other health insurances received, etc. could be verified almost immediately upon receipt of a person’s health insurance enrollment application.

However, because of all the troubles trying to get the ACA website itself working by 1 October and afterwards, the Administration decided early on to defer the back-end office systems development.  Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services testified in front of the US Congress last November that 30 to 40 percent of the back-end systems work still needed to be completed. While everyone knew the systems were behind schedule, to say that Chao's admission took Congress by surprise is an understatement.

Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services Secretary at the time, promised a startled Congress that the back-end systems would be in place by mid-January, so not to worry. That timetable, however, soon slipped to mid-March, and now, as the Post reports, to late summer. Some $121 million has been budgeted since the beginning of the year to try to get these back-end systems working, which comes on top of the unknown tens of millions of dollars previously spent on their development.

Interestingly, when the systems' development timetable slipped from mid-January to mid-March, the Administration admitted that if the back-end systems were not completed by the March date,  “the entire healthcare reform program [could] be jeopardized” because the “issuance of [incorrect] payments to health plans ... could seriously put them at financial risk; potentially leading to their default and disrupting continued services and coverage to consumers.”

Another reason why the lack of back-end systems could place ACA in jeopardy is that without them, the Federal government cannot accurately determine how many people have even paid their health insurance premiums. The lack of valid premium payment data along with improper subsidy payments could lead to wrongly predicting the “Risk Adjustment, Reinsurance, and Risk Corridor [pdf], potentially putting the entire health insurance industry at risk," Administration documents stated.

The Obama Administration naturally is trying to play down its own dire warnings about paying out subsidies without first verifying a person’s eligibility or knowing who has and hasn’t paid their premiums, which has angered many Republicans in Congress, some of whom who are calling for a suspension of unverified subsidy payments. The Administration is unlikely to do that, but if it can’t get those back-end systems up and running in the next few months, there will likely be an increasingly large political—not to mention huge financial—cost to be paid.

Speaking of cost, a story by Politico reports that $475 million has been spent so far on the failed Oregon, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Nevada health insurance exchanges alone. Both Maryland and Massachusetts, however, now want even more money to fix their broken exchanges, while the FBI is trying to determine whether there was fraud involving the Oregon exchange effort. Nevada announced last week that it has decided to throw in the towel on its own exchange, and will use the Federal one instead, at least for 2015. Rumor has it that Rhode Island, which has a working exchange, may soon decide to move to the Federal exchange as well. In Rhode Island’s case, the future costs of operating and maintaining its exchange is starting to look increasingly unaffordable.

The Politico story also says that according to the Kaiser Foundation’s calculation, the Federal government has given state governments some $4.698 billion since 2011 to support their exchange development efforts.  In addition, according to recently released figures, the Federal government has so far obligated some $834 million to create its exchange and back end support systems, and will need another $200 million in Fiscal Year 2015 to maintain it, which is about double what was thought to be required to develop the exchange in the first place.

Finally, last week the real story of the first day ACA enrollments came to light thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Judicial Watch. Whereas it was long thought that only 6 people were able to enroll that first day, in reality, only one person was ever able to enroll for health insurance coverage, even though 43 208 accounts were created, government records show.

In Other News ...

Oregon Secretary of State Website Error Delays Congressional Vote Reporting

eVoting Machines Malfunction in Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County

Hotel Reservation System Error Overbooks Rooms for Tennessee Ironman Competition

Computer Malfunction Causes CSX Train to Block New York Road

IT Ticketing Problem Fixed for Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games

Massachusetts Still Trying to Fix New Unemployment System Issues

Tacoma Washington Schools Experience More Online Testing Woes

New York City Places “Fundamentally Wrong” 911 System Implementation on Hold

U.S. Immigration Court System Outage Enters Week Six

IT Hiccups of the Week

It’s been another slow news week in the world of IT-related errors, problems and failures. The most interesting IT Hiccup of the week involves a puzzling six-week outage affecting the computer system that supports U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) administered courts across the country.

About a month ago, the New York Post ran a story describing a “tech meltdown” involving five servers located in Falls Church, Virginia, on 12 April. The servers are an integral part of the computer system supporting the 59 immigration courts administered by the EOIR. According to the Department of Justice, the EOIR “primarily decides whether foreign-born individuals, who are charged by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with violating immigration law, should be ordered removed from the United States or should be granted relief or protection from removal and be permitted to remain in this country.”

As a result of the outage, which also took out the mandatory electronic registry for accredited immigration attorneys and representatives, the 260-plus immigration court judges (and staff) have had to return to pencil-and-paper methods. As described at JDSUPRA.com, the problem has kept “court clerks from accessing court records, entering new ones in the system, and making audio recordings of hearings.”

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British Columbia's Integrated Case Management System Falls Over

IT Hiccups of the Week

After the previous week’s deluge, last week saw a return to a more “normal” number of reported IT-related malfunctions, errors and problems. The most significant involves British Columbia’s controversial CAD $182 million Integrated Case Management (ICM) system. It has been plagued with so many operational issues that government social workers using the system complain that it has been essentially unusable for over a week, the Vancouver Sun reported.

The ICM (pdf) is a new  government IT system aimed at streamlining the management of computer files across the three British Columbia government ministries (Social Development and Social Innovation; Children and Family Development; and Technology, Innovation, and Citizens’ Services) that provide social services to “poor children, disabled people and troubled families racked by addiction, mental illness and violence.” The ICM system is being introduced in four phases. Phase 1 occurred in November 2010; Phase 4, which is the final phase, is scheduled for roll-out at the end of this year.  

I previously noted that with the introduction of Phase 2 in April 2012, social workers bitterly complained that the ICM system kept freezing, data routinely disappeared, and the system was extremely cumbersome to use. Government officials at the time tried to play down the problems, characterizing them as just the routine “challenges” accompanying any new IT system introduction. But independent assessment reports later confirmed the validity of the complaints. The assessment also indicated a rather dysfunctional project development that needed immediate correcting.

Phase 3 of the ICM system was introduced a year ago March, and the complaints about the system started to subside. That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when all the old performance problems seemed to reappear with a vengeance. Social workers were livid that they were once more having to deal “with blank screens, and the inability to access to their clients’ addresses and warnings that may have been part of the file” which forced them to revert to paper and pencil methods. Exacerbating their anger was the B.C. government’s decision not to disclose publicly for almost a week that there were new problems occurring with the ICM system.

That information blackout also raised the ire of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the province’s independent watchdog for children and youth, who said ICM's ongoing problems were placing vulnerable children and adults, especially those who might need protection, at risk. She also called for a new independent assessment of the ICM system's performance and development.

After the ICM problems became public early last week, British Columbia’s Technology Minister Andrew Wilkinson claimed they were nothing more than “intermittent slowdowns.” Further, despite all the warnings by Turpel-Lafond as well as the political opposition about vulnerable children, the problems encountered caused only minor impacts on the delivery of critical government services. B.C. Children’s Minister Stephanie Cadieux also strongly rejected the notion that children were being placed at risk, the Vancouver Sun reported.

On Wednesday, in a bit of delicious irony, the Times Colonist newspaper reported that Wilkinson confidently told reporters that all the issues with the system were now fixed, so, please would everyone just move along. However, within an hour of saying the ICM was up and smoothly running again, an opposition party official informed a very surprised Wilkenson (and apparently those same reporters) that the ICM had crashed and burned again.

Opposition party members had earlier in the week pointedly reminded Wilkenson that even while the ICM system was having its previously undisclosed troubles, he was boasting to the legislative assembly about the government’s “enviable record of deployment of top IT services.” The opposition members wanted to know whether Wilkinson was just out of touch with what was going on in his area of responsibility, or whether he had misled the assembly. Given the latest meltdown, opposition members were now inquisitive about his lack of up-to-date knowledge on ICM's status since they knew more about it than he did.

A highly chastened Wilkenson told the Times Colonist that he was “unhappy” about the latest ICM outage, and implied that he was misled about the system's true state.  He added that, “This is clearly a system that’s unstable. We’re going to get to the bottom of this, we’re going to report back to the house and to the people of British Columbia what’s gone on, and we’re going to seek our remedies.”

Wilkenson didn’t offer a timetable as to when the ICM would indeed be fixed, or when he would report on what was really going on with the ICM, however.

It now looks like the Auditor General of British Columbia, who is currently conducting an IT audit of the ICM system, will have one more issue to investigate. He may also want to ask Wilkenson why the government is claiming that the ICM system has been “available and functioning for the benefit of British Columbians nearly 100 percent of the time” since April 2012, when it demonstrably has not.

In Other News…

Bank of Montreal Apologizes over MasterCard Problems

U.S. State Department Reports New Green Card Lottery Glitch

Thousands of Northern Ireland Nurses Underpaid for Five Months

New Election Software Delays Voting Report in North Carolina

Maybank in Malaysia Apologizes for Multi-day Nationwide Operational Problems

Exposing the Roots of the Perpetual “STEM Crisis”

Okay, here are your choices: 1957, 1982, and 2014. Match each year to when the following statements were made:

a. “It is pretty generally realized that our country faces a serious scientific and engineering manpower shortage. We have at present about half the engineers which we need, and each year we are graduating only about half our annual needs.”

b. “Science, technology, engineering and math form the foundation of the global economy. Yet, … if educational trends continue, fewer qualified candidates will be available to support growth in these areas.”

c. “We appear to be raising a generation of Americans, many of whom lack the understanding and the skills necessary to participate fully in the technological world in which they live and work.”

Well, for the record, the order of the year when each statement was made is 1957, 2014 and 1982.  However, as explained in Michael Teitelbaum’s new book, Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust & the Global Race For Scientific Talent  (Princeton University Press:2014), whatever order you chose is as good as any other. Teitelbaum is a Senior Research Associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School (and whom I interviewed for my IEEE Spectrum feature, The STEM Crisis is a Myth). According to him, since the end of the Second World War there have been regular proclamations of shortfalls in the graduation rates of engineers and scientists, as well as prophecies of the imminent loss of U.S. technical leadership caused by the abysmal education of U.S. students in math and sciences.  

Teitelbaum writes that these recurring concerns could well be cut and pasted into one sentence:

“The United States, long a leader in the number and quality of its scientists and engineers, has been falling behind its international competitors, and is thereby risking serious deterioration in its future prosperity and security.”

However, as Teitelbaum clearly demonstrates in his well-researched book, the past and current cries of an engineering and science crisis “are quite inconsistent with nearly all the available evidence,” going back to the early 1950s.

Teitelbaum begins Falling Behind? by examining the many hyperbolic claims of the current so-called science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) crisis. He expertly dissects these assertions and clearly demonstrates the weak assumptions and sloppy reasoning underlying each.

Teitelbaum next turns his attention to previous declarations of engineer and scientist shortages over the previous seventy years in a chapter aptly titled, “No Shortage of Shortages.” Teitelbaum has been debunking these claims since the 1980s. In Falling Behind?, he shows that the fear sown by the false alarms of impending doom did achieve their political goals of successfully spurring governmental actions to alleviate the supposed crisis by pouring more money into research and education. However, those crying wolf have also produced a series of (at least) five alarm boom-busts episodes that have predictably—if unintentionally—destabilized the U.S. science and engineering workforce. In addition, Teitelbaum argues, when the artificially created demand for engineers and scientist goes bust, it serves to discourage those very same sought-after students from pursuing engineering and science careers in the first place.

Teitelbaum's analysis shows that the basic problems in attracting students to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are structural in origin, and “cannot be cured simply by providing additional resources.” He devotes a full chapter describing how the U.S. engineering and science “academic production process” operates, and how that process is insulated, especially at the graduate degree level, from the needs of the market. As Teitelbaum demonstrates, the current system of higher education has been geared for some time towards producing PhDs and postdoctoral students “irrespective of whether there is sufficient demand for such highly educated personnel in the market place.”

Especially useful is the light Teitelbaum shines on the many financial and political incentives that motivate industry, academia and government to proclaim an engineering and science crisis. He dedicates most of a chapter to, for example, exposing incessant lobbying efforts to increase the number H-1B visa workers to meet the supposed STEM shortage. Teitelbaum describes in detail the various lobbying organizations, interest groups and companies involved and how they are spending  tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to change immigration policy.

Teitelbaum also distressingly, but accurately, points out how “advocates of these shortage claims have had a nearly open field in politics and the media,” and that while there have been decades of credible evidence debunking shortage claims, those making them are far less “organized, funded or politically connected” than those making those claims.  This disparity in resources, organization and political power make the fight for the truth, “really no contest.”

This was apparent in a recent “STEM Crisis Debate” sponsored by the Information Technology and Information Foundation (ITIF), a Washington, D.C. think tank. The ITIF insists there is a shortage of STEM students and workers, and is an advocate of increasing the number of H-1B visas. Robert Atkinson, ITIF president, for example, was quoted as saying, “If you don’t say there is a shortage, you don’t drive improvement.” That sort of admission (as do others) goes unnoticed in much of the press, as exemplified by the newspaper USA Today, which has been strongly beating the U.S. STEM crisis drum for quite some time.

Unfortunately, the outsized claims of a shortage in engineers and scientists will likely swamp Teitelbaum’s many sensible recommendations to start addressing the situation. One recommendation, for instance, is a call for the gathering of unbiased information on the STEM current and potential workforce. As he writes, “Given the importance of the health of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise and its talented workforce, it is striking that there continues to be no credible entity charged with regular, systematic, authoritative, and objective assessment of trends and prospects for education and careers in these occupations.” Until there is, one can confidently predict the past STEM alarm—boom—bust cycle to continue into the future unabated.

Another recommendation (or plea) Teitelbaum makes is for stability in government research and development funding. Past booms (and then busts) in funding have helped students and workers alike to pursue careers that just were, unsurprisingly, not sustainable. The recent boom and bust in the National Institutes of Health’s funding is one recent example Teitelbaum delves deeply into; the periodic increases and decreases in other government departments’ and agencies’ R&D provide fertile ground for others seeking examples.

Falling Behind? is a very useful addition to the science and engineering crisis literature, and fills in many of the areas not covered by Richard Freeman and Daniel Goroff’s Science and Engineering Careers in the United States (University of Chicago Press:2009) or Daniel Greenberg’s Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (University of Chicago Press:2001). While the audience for Falling Behind? will tend towards the government and educational policy analyst crowd, the audience it deserves are the U.S. politicians and media editors and producers who are being bombarded daily with STEM crisis propaganda. Working scientists and engineers would also do well to give the book a read, though they may find it depressing.

However, while Falling Behind? is a comprehensive book about the origins of the science and engineering shortage mythology, it doesn’t tell the complete story. I think insufficient emphasis is given to how changes in market place demand have also contributed to the claims of science and engineering shortages. For instance, the petrochemical industry has been complaining of shortages of petrochemical engineering students for over a decade now. However, the industry’s leadership conveniently forgets about its previous massive and ruthless layoffs in the late 1980s and early 1990s that demolished the demand for petrochemical engineering students. Other industries that also like to moan about STEM shortages such as those in computing, aerospace and manufacturing, exhibit similar amnesia to their roles in creating them.

A number of years ago, the current Mayor of London Boris Johnson, then the Conservative Party spokesperson on higher education, bemoaned in the Guardian newspaper that Britain was failing to educate sufficient numbers of engineers and scientists such as nuclear physicists.

Sir John Rose, who recently retired as chief executive of Rolls-Royce, wrote a letter to Johnson about his article saying that, “If you don't have a nuclear industry, then anyone who is smart enough to be a nuclear physicist is not going to choose that career... People won’t become engineers just for the sake of it.”


Note: This post has been updated to reflect Michael Teitelbaum's current research affiliations.


Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

Willie D. Jones
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