U.S. dominance in science and engineering at risk

We’ve been hammering away on this topic for a few years now.  The United States, through a combination of bad policy and a lack of strategic planning, is losing its enormous advantage in the key driver for technological innovation: Graduate Students in Engineering and Sciences.

A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research warned that changes in the global science and engineering job market may require a long period of adjustment for U.S. workers:

"The United States has had a substantial lead in science and technology since World War Two. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, it employs almost a third of science and engineering researchers, accounts for 40 percent of research and development spending and publishes 35 percent of science and engineering research papers.

Many of the world’s top high-tech firms are American, and government spending on defense-related technology ensures the U.S. military’s technological dominance on battlefields. But the roots of this lead may be eroding, Freeman said.

Numbers of science and engineering graduates from European and Asian universities are soaring while new degrees in the United States have stagnated — cutting its overall share.

In 2000, the paper said, 17 percent of university bachelor degrees in the U.S. were in science and engineering compared with a world average of 27 percent and 52 percent in China.

The picture among doctorates — key to advanced scientific research — was more striking. In 2001, universities in the European Union granted 40 percent more science and engineering doctorates than the United States, with that figure expected to reach nearly 100 percent by about 2010, the study showed."

Not a good thing . . .


Does Globalization of the Scientific/Engineering Workforce Threaten U.S. Economic Leadership?
Richard B. Freeman
NBER Working Paper No. 11457, July 2005

U.S. losing lead in science and engineering-study
Updated: 3:50 p.m. ET July 8, 2005

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  1. simon commented on Jul 23

    A major issue but it is not the result of the lack of strategic planning or bad policy … if you really think it is you may want to state why you feel that way … the real issue is that Americans do not value or want to be scientists .. . short of forced action the government does not have much leverage … Americans may be more clever than you think … engineering and science jobs appear to be those leaving our shores most rapidly as brilliant US business executives outsource R&D … the real problem in my opinion is that US business executives are generally ignorant of science … we are managed by finance types that have run every majory manufactruing organization into the ground and then handed them over for Asian dominance … Interestingly they are mainly engineering and science types … another problem is that boards and US firms value EQ way over IQ …

  2. Steve commented on Jul 24


    Since this blog is about Macro Perspectives on… we should look at this problem from a market and global economy point of view.

    Over the last 50 years a large number of Technical/Engineering degrees were obtained in Mechanical, Electronics, Software, Chemical, Industrial Engineering disciplines. From my experience in college and industry about 50% of those degrees are used in production related activities ( assembly line design and construction, process improvement, automated testing ).

    Over the last 20 years many if not most of these jobs have been eliminated through production automation or shipped out of the US either through outsourcing or importing.

    The design side of things is not doing much better. I do electronic design work in the “high tech” sector for a S&P100 firm, we are not in the hiring mode, I would guess that 80% of electronics engineers and software developers are in the 35-50 age bracket. There are very few 20 somethings, and fewer still being hired. This is true among peers at other firms that I’ve descussed this phenomina with. In my group of about 100 engineers only 2 are under 30.

    From this perspective I think students are merely responding to market conditions. There is no great conundrum, and it is probably a good thing from the kids point of view. What is the point of getting an education in fields where there are no jobs.

    From a US capability point of view it may not be a good thing, if you assume that technical capabilities are directly correlated to GDP, but it seems to be the decision we’ve made as a nation.

  3. bhaim commented on Jul 25

    There is no shortage of scientists and engineers in the U.S. Between 1990 and 2003 the number of scientists and engineers increased more rapidly than the rest of the workforce while earnings and career opportunities in these fields fell short of those in other education-intensive fields. Unable to gain independent research grants, young scientists spend years as low-paid postdocs before gaining “real jobs” in academe, industry, or government. Many bright young Americans choose to invest in other occupations. Do you want to be a 35-year-old postdoc earning $40,000 in someone else’s lab, or an MBA earning $150,000 working in a major business directing others?

    Richard Freeman
    Professor of Economics
    Harvard University


  4. Peter commented on Aug 1

    The previous writers have all hit it on the nail. I graduated in the UK in Computer Science back in the early 1990s with hopes of working on designing supercomputers or working for NASA. The reality on graduating was that there were few jobs in computing at the time and most that there was then, as is now, is for data processing. Made my way to the USA and was a “code jockey” for 7.5 years. Now a partner in a hedge fund and learning new skills.
    As for women, here in New York, you can make far more money selling real estate than pouring over 20 pages of mathematical proof. Same goes for corporate law, investment banking, etc.

  5. Lindsay Oliver commented on Mar 9

    You also have to consider factors outside US control. In any given population there are only so many people who will excell at any given subject. Let’s suppose the US does all it can and everyone in the US is fulfilling their potential. Suppose further that all other countries failed to do this. Under these assumptions the US comes out ahead. Now suppose that conditions change in some other counties so that more potential engineers and scientists fulfill their potential. Under this set of assumptions these other counties begin to catch up with the US, the gap begins to close, and changing things in the US will not stop the gap closing.

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