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Headlines Published on 19 December 2003

Title US scientists and engineers: your country needs you 

Europe’s policy-makers are watching with interest their US counterpart’s belated reaction to a problem that has been looming now for some years: a lack of qualified scientists and engineers.

US rallying call for more homegrown scientists © Image: Internet sources
US rallying call for more homegrown scientists

© Image: Internet sources
Governments both sides of the Atlantic have woken up to the stark reality that shortages of qualified scientists and engineers are imminent if action is not taken to stimulate – and retain – homegrown talent. Europe became aware of the problem in December 2001 following the release of its Eurobarometer survey ‘Science and society: how to bridge the gaps’. Most striking was the discovery that almost 60% of Europeans in the EU-wide study thought ‘science lessons at school are not appealing enough’.

Since then, Europe has redoubled its efforts to promote science, especially scientific careers, initially through its human potential programme. This was reinforced under the EU’s current Framework Programme for research (FP6), and is now a key activity in the broader ‘Science and Society’ programme.

The USA, on the other hand, is just now coming to grips with the scope of the problem, with the publication of a report by the National Science Board (NSB) saying that the “future strength of the US [science and engineering] workforce is imperilled” and calling for more federal funds to support US science students and to improve science teaching.    

Don’t count on foreign talent
Evidence is mounting that, as global competition for graduates in science and engineering intensifies, laboratories and research houses in the USA will need to produce homegrown talent. According to the report, entitled ‘The S&E Workforce: Realizing America’s Potential’, the number of S&E jobs filled by foreign-born PhDs in the States grew from 24% in 1990 to 38% in 2000. “[The] United States may not be able to rely on the international S&E labor market to fill unmet skill needs,” it warned.

The problem is more difficult to solve than just throwing money at it. “The necessity for sophisticated, costly facilities for science and engineering [S&E] education, well-qualified faculty, and the long lead-time required to attain a baccalaureate, much less an advanced degree in [the field], precludes a ‘just-in-time’ delivery approach to policies to sustain and strengthen the S&E workforce,” explained the report released during the summer.

The NSB wants the Federal Government and its agencies to pull out all the stops in mobilising stakeholders to increase the number of US citizens pursuing science and engineering studies and careers. It offers several specific recommendations to achieve this, including more funding and incentives for undergraduates, expanded programmes to draw minorities and women to the field, more competitive benefits for S&E graduates and postdocs. It also recommends further investment in a knowledge base on the S&E workforce at home and abroad, better compensation packages for teachers, as well as more engagement with the S&E actors internationally.

Source:  EU sources, NSB, The Scientist

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More information:

  • Eurobarometer survey
  • US National Science Board report (pdf)
  • Article ‘Homegrown scientists’, The Scientist

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