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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.

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But policymakers may want to take a closer look at the numbers before they take more action. Although the US has dropped slightly in its share of the world's technical publications and cited work, "on the whole the evidence did not support that we had a shortage of STEM workers in the economy," says James Hosek, a researcher at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., and coauthor with RAND's Titus Galama of a 2008 study on the issue.

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In fact, data show that the US accounts for 40 percent of the entire world's research and development spending, and it increased that spending more than any other region between 1993 and 2003. Between 1983 and 2007, the percentage of the workforce in science and engineering occupations grew from 2.6 percent to 4.3 percent. The number of graduates in the STEM fields exceeds the number of people who end up working in those fields.

Those are healthy signs for the US, since there does seem to be a correlation between the size of a country's scientific workforce and its economic growth, according to a 2000 study by three Stanford University and University of California, Irvine, professors.

What's not so clear is whether US student performance is that relevant. "If you put aside the statistics and look what's going on, it's not clear to me that you can predict economic growth on how kids are doing on international standardized tests," says Francisco Ramirez of Stanford, one of the coauthors of the 2000 study.

In any case, American students have mostly improved their scores in the three tests since the 1995 TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). And their rankings – typically low or average – among students in about 50 countries has not changed

For Mr. Hosek, the most important investments for children are in high-quality education, in general, and health. STEM programs can have an emotional appeal, but "we do want some evidence, some assurance, that these policies really are effective and not just appealing," he says.

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