Do we really know whether we have too few or too many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students to meet the future innovation and competitive needs of the US? That was one of the questions being addressed at a STEM conference on measures for innovation and competitiveness that I attended this week in Washington, D.C. It was sponsored by several industry associations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and IEEE USA. 

Since the 2007 publication of the influential National Science Foundation report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," which examined the “erosion” of the “U.S. advantages in the marketplace and in science and technology” and which stated that a “coordinated federal effort is urgently needed to bolster U.S. competitiveness and pre-eminence in these areas,” there has been a bi-partisan consensus that  the way to reverse said erosion is to increase both the number of STEM graduates as well as STEM knowledge in the general student population, which has been on a relative decline over the past decade.

In response to the increasing concern over the dwindling supply of STEM students, back in 2009 the Obama Administration announced a $260 million government/private industry initiative called, “Educate to Innovate,” the aim of which was “to move American students to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade.”

More recently, the Administration proposed a new $100 million government/private industry initiative to train 100,000 STEM teachers and graduate 1 million additional STEM students over the next decade, an very ambitious goal given that about 167,000 students total graduated with STEM degrees last year.

Even as these and dozens more STEM initiatives have sprung up, there has been a lingering question about how much STEM professionals contribute to national innovation and competitiveness as well as whether there truly is a STEM education shortfall, and if so, by how much? Without good answers to these questions based on concrete data, national policy is formed and scarce national resources allocated based on anecdotal information which one can only hope provides the correct insights.

The speakers at the STEM workshop dug into these issues and more.  For instance, Professor Richard Freeman from Harvard stated that while everyone generally agrees that “innovation” is critical to U.S.  economic and social progress, there aren’t good definitions of what the term means let alone how to measure innovation at a national level.  As a result, when R&D funding is reduced (as it has been for quite some time at the federal level in relation to GDP), no one is really sure what the effects are on future innovation and therefore economic or social progress.  Freeman proposed an approach to define and measure innovation (i.e., an "innovation index") so that when national policy decisions involving R&D funding are made there is some understanding as to what the end result will likely end up being.

In a similar vein, Professor Nicholas Vonortas from George Washington University spoke about the disconnect that seems to exist in US manufacturing and the role of STEM education.  He noted that the US manufacturing sector continues to shrink from the size it once was (although it is still the largest in the world) and what remains increasingly depends on knowledge-intensive work. Furthermore, there exist high-skilled manufacturing jobs that are going unfilled and likely will continue to be for some time, as this Washington Post story also noted a few months back.  This is important because in previous U.S. recessions, manufacturing has led the way out of them.  The assumption is that if these jobs go unfulfilled, what’s left of U. S. manufacturing will not only eventually disappear but the effects of the last recession and the current job stagnation will linger for a long time; therefore, the argument goes, if only there were more STEM graduates, the U.S. could at least preserve the manufacturing jobs that exist.

However, Vonortas noted that, when one digs into the data, most of the jobs going begging are apparently for production workers; not ones that would necessarily require STEM degrees.  In addition, manufacturing jobs may go begging because manufacturing is seen by students and their parents as a  poorly paying industry that doesn’t have a healthy long-term future.  Therefore, Vonortas says, there isn’t really any hard evidence to claim that the lack of STEM students is the problem or that more are the solution to maintaining U.S. manufacturing. U.S. policy makers may need to look at other avenues than STEM education to solve U.S. manufacturing issues.

One area where STEM students are needed is in aerospace and especially the defense industry. Edward Swallow from Northrup Grumman discussed how aerospace and defense (A&D) is the leading employer of STEM professionals, but it is having a hard time attracting new STEM grads. One reason, similar to manufacturing, is that STEM graduates look at A&D as a declining industry, which given projected defense budget cuts, is not an unreasonable perspective.  Another is that usually U.S. citizenship and often a security clearance is required, which reduces those eligible to be employed. A third is that there are not a lot of exciting new aerospace or defense initiatives that spur the imagination of young engineers like there once were.

Swallow’s company and others in the A&D industry are pushing hard to increase the total number of STEM students (especially from minority groups and women) in order to meet their needs. But as another speaker, Professor Ron Hira from Rochester Institute of Technology pointed out in his talk on the globalization of engineering and its impact, the US economy has created less than 50,000 new engineering jobs in the past decade. That lackluster performance can be attributed to both increased global competition and the outsourcing of engineering and other STEM-related jobs even as 900,000 engineering students were graduating from colleges and universities.  The use of H-1B visas has also negatively impacted the availability of STEM jobs in the US, Hira argued.

All these factors may help explain why only about half of those graduating with undergraduate STEM degrees actually work in the STEM-related fields after college, and after 10 years, only some eight percent still do. I should note that those with STEM degrees do seem to enjoy higher salaries than non-STEM degree co-workers in any field they so choose, which may be the best reason to get one.

By the end of the conference it was pretty clear that the assumption that a major increase in STEM educational funding is absolutely required for the US to avert future economic decline is not well tested. Funding may well be needed, but the current data provide mixed support.  I’ll provide a link to the speaker presentation videos when it appears, but in the meantime, you may want to read the Spectrum article on jobless innovation that made many of the same points the speakers at the conference did.

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