Shortage of Scientists Sends Signal
Projected drop in doctoral-level graduates would hamper US universities and research work
NEW ORLEANS — 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.
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.
But paying for college is harder for minorities: ``Over the last 10 years, the dollars per student of financial aid has remained constant. During that same period, educational costs have more than doubled,'' says George Campbell Jr., president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) in New York.
While 72 percent of all nonminority students get significant financial support from their families, fewer than 25 percent of minority engineering students surveyed by NACME get significant support; almost 40 percent get none.
While the number of women earning doctorates in science and engineering has increased in recent years, that trend may reverse itself shortly: The percentage of women earning undergraduate degrees in science and engineering has been declining for the past two years, says Marsha Matyas, director of the AAAS program on women and science.
``There seems to be the public attitude that we have solved the problem for women,'' says Dr. Matyas. ``In fact, we are backsliding.''
Like minorities, women are hampered by cultural stereotypes that they aren't good scientists and by a lack of role models. But they're getting less institutional support, says Matyas, who recently completed a survey of programs to help women, minorities, and the physically impaired at 502 US colleges and universities.
Half of the programs Matyas surveyed were open only to minority students; only 9 percent focused exclusively on women.
Although Matyas found that role-model programs are successful for students, they are a drain on the faculty members who volunteer to be mentors - often at the expense of their other work. ``Working with women and minorities does not help you get tenure,'' she says.
Tulane's president blames simple economics for the deepening labor deficit: ``We don't pay teachers enough, we don't pay college teachers enough, we don't pay scientists enough,'' says Dr. Kelly, an economist by training. ``We pay the most important people in our society the least amount of money, and that has started to have its impact on both the quality of life, in terms of problems in our cities, and world economic relations.
``In our society, the people that have moved up the economic ladder have not been the scientists, but the lawyers, financiers, and marketers,'' Kelly says. Compounding the problem is a shift in financial aid programs from fellowships to loans. Saddled with debts from college, graduating students have pressing economic reasons for pursuing professional instead of academic careers.
For example, says Kelly, a new lawyer who has spent just three years in law school can expect to earn as much as $85,000. But a student graduating with a doctorate, after spending four to eight years in pursuit of the advanced degree, would earn just $30,000 to $35,000 as an assistant professor at Tulane.
Nevertheless, when President Kelly tours New Orleans high schools, he tells the minority students to go into the sciences, rather than pursue one-in-a-million chances in music or athletics.
And job opportunities for scientists and engineers are getting better all the time.
``It is worth noting that the employment rate for scientists and engineers is increasing faster than total US employment, accounting for 3.6 percent of the labor force in 1986 compared with 2.4 percent in 1976,'' says Atkinson of the AAAS. ``Thus, it is reasonable to assume an intensified competition for the scientists and engineers produced during the coming decade. Opportunities for those graduates will be excellent, a fact that needs to be emphasized to young people now making career choices.''