Shortage of Scientists Sends Signal
Projected drop in doctoral-level graduates would hamper US universities and research work
THE United States faces an annual shortage of 9,600 doctoral-level scientists between 1995 and 2010. And this is only part of the national labor crisis in science and engineering. It will get worse before it gets better, said Richard C. Atkinson, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), speaking at the association's annual meeting late last month.Skip to next paragraph
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The crisis is most obvious in graduate programs that grant doctorates, the degree awarded for advanced research and an almost absolute requirement for university teaching or directing scientific work in industry.
``There isn't any doubt that we have a shortage of PhD candidates nationally, and that it is a crisis in math, science, and engineering,'' says Eamon Kelly, president of Tulane University in New Orleans.
The US will need 400,000 more scientists and engineers by the year 2000 than it will be able to produce, said Dr. Atkinson, quoting from a recent study by the National Science Foundation.
``Total PhD production in science and engineering increased rapidly after 1960, peaked in 1972, and thereafter declined until the late 1970s,'' said Atkinson.
While there has been a rise in the number of students graduating with PhDs in the 1980s, that growth has been due almost entirely to foreign students. ``In 1972, US institutions awarded over 1,000 PhDs in mathematics; in 1987, they awarded fewer than 750, and only 350 to US-born students,'' he said.
The decline is due, in part, to changing demographics: The US population of 22-year-olds has been steadily declining since the early 1980s, a trend that will not change until the late 1990s, according to the US Bureau of the Census. ``Because of the continuing decline in the college-age population, the proportion of students receiving bachelor's degrees in science and engineering would have to increase dramatically just to maintain the current annual supply,'' said Atkinson.
But instead, science is becoming a less attractive career, especially for groups such as women and minority students, who have traditionally been underrepresented in technical fields.
Many scientists at the meeting spoke of a human ``pipeline'' that takes students in grade school, where many show an interest in science, through their math courses in elementary school, science degrees in college, and into graduate school, where they earn PhDs.
That pipeline is now leaking: Statistics collected by the US Department of Education show that only 46 percent of college freshmen who graduated from high school in 1980 and declared a major in science or engineering went on to earn a baccalaureate degree in those fields. And only 5 percent of those granted degrees in science or engineering go on to obtain a PhD in a science-related field, Atkinson said.
Minority science majors are even scarcer. In 1988, only three African-Americans graduated with degrees in the physical sciences from the entire University of California system, says Eugene Cota-Robles, assistant vice president for academic advancement for the University of California system.
Across the country, only 32 African-Americans earned doctorates in physical sciences that year, a 38 percent drop from the 15-year peak of 51 in 1978.
Some colleges have started targeting minority high school students in their recruitment efforts: ``If they don't outreach, they won't have the students,'' says Yolanda S. George, a project director at the AAAS who recently completed a case study of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
``The president [of the university] has chosen recruitment and retention of minority students and faculty as a primary goal for the next four years,'' says Ms. George. There is even a bounty of $30,000 for departments that recruit tenure-track minority faculty members. The reason: Minority students are more likely to stay if they have minority professors as role models.