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US losing its technological edge? No!

There's plenty of room for improvement. But contrary to the rhetoric, the US has plenty of technical workers and American students have not slipped in science, math over the past 15 years, studies show.

By Mary Helen MillerCorrespondent / June 7, 2011

Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge work on a project. While US students are only middling in math and science versus students in other nations, their ranking has not deteriorated over the past 15 years.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File

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Amid some $40 billion in budget cuts in April, Congress decided to preserve a favorite – education programs for science, technology, engineering, and math.

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"STEM" programs, as they're called, have rare bipartisan support in a Congress worried about the United States' economic competitiveness. Business groups are pushing for more funding. President Obama has called the crisis "our generation's Sputnik moment."

But what if the crisis isn't real?

Political rhetoric aside, there's no lack of workers to fill technical jobs. And the pipeline of US math and science students to fill future positions has not deteriorated in terms of international competitiveness in the past 15 years.

"Every time we look at these shortage claims, we can't find them," says Hal Salzman, a public policy expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Nobody argues that the US couldn't do better in improving science and math education and technological competitiveness. But if the justification for pumping up STEM education is an economic one, alarmist warnings could take money away from equally deserving programs.

"They're asking the government to direct a huge number of resources to increase the supply for something that's not in great demand," says Mr. Salzman. "Does that come at the expense of dealing with real problems?"

That the US might be losing its technological edge has been a recurring theme since at least the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, which galvanized US science education. Worries reemerged in the 1980s as Japan made inroads into traditional US industries, such as automobiles. It is again a lively topic now as China challenges US primacy.

"The number of jobs out there that require a strong foundation in STEM has grown dramatically," says Claus von Zastrow, chief operating officer of Change the Equation, a STEM education advocacy group. "The fact is that if students aren't able to keep pace with these demands, we can really question whether we'll remain at the forefront of innovation."

Change the Equation, a group of more than 100 chief executive officers that formed last year to focus effective philanthropy and change standardized testing of STEM subjects at the state level, is driven by worries that the US economy and national security could become compromised if education falls behind. Likewise, a 2010 revision of a 2005 National Academies Press publication warns that the US "has increasingly placed shackles on [innovative] prowess such that, if not relieved, the nation's ability to provide financially and personally rewarding jobs for its own citizens can be expected to decline at an accelerating pace." The America COMPETES Act was signed into law in 2007 following the initial study, though it has yet to be funded.

"This is one of those storms that builds up very slowly," says Norman Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. and chairman of the committee that wrote the original study. "It's not a lightning storm or earthquake. It's more like a hurricane that gradually comes upon you."

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