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FYI Number 95: August 12, 2002

Concerns Over the Future of NASA's S&T Workforce

As the August congressional recess approached, subcommittees of the House Science Committee were active, holding oversight hearings on a number of programs and agencies under their jurisdiction. On July 18, the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee investigated concerns that, in the future, NASA will not have the S&T workforce it needs to fulfill its mission. U.S. Comptroller General David Walker testified that NASA "is finding it particularly difficult to hire people with engineering, science, and information technology skills." Within five years, he stated, about a quarter of NASA's scientists and engineers will be eligible for retirement, while "the pipeline of people with science and engineering skills is shrinking." NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe reported on "an alarming attrition pattern" among recent employees. "Even utilizing all the tools at hand," his testimony stated, "we are at a disadvantage when competing with the private sector."

"NASA is not alone in its search for enthusiastic and qualified employees," O'Keefe's testimony continued. "Throughout the Federal government, as well as the private sector, the challenge faced by a lack of scientists and engineers is real and is growing by the day." He cited NSF statistics showing that graduate enrollment in engineering, physical and earth sciences, and math showed declines between 1993 and 2000, and from the mid- 1990s to 2000, engineering and physics doctorates declined by 15 and 22 percent, respectively.

O'Keefe presented to the subcommittee a proposal to give NASA enhanced flexibility in hiring, retaining and rewarding highly skilled employees. The provisions include scholarships to help U.S. students pursue careers in engineering and physical, biological or life sciences (with a year-for-year service requirement); expansion of federal employee personnel exchanges; establishment of similar personnel exchanges with industry; authority to provide higher pay and larger bonuses; and streamlined hiring processes. Mark Roth, General Counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees, took issue with provisions to expand personnel exchanges and to hire "without regard to existing competitive procedures." His testimony concludes, "No federal agency, including NASA, should have a human resources plan that explicitly encourages constant turnover and puts no value on continuity, dedication, or career development for the incumbent workforce."

"One thing I want to see this committee do this year is to move forward with some proposals that would ensure that NASA has the people it needs," said Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). However, the hearing charter notes that several other pieces of legislation to reform federal hiring practices and increase flexibility have been the subject of Senate hearings this spring, but are unlikely to go any further this year.

Detailed data on physics and astronomy degree production is available in the latest "Enrollments and Degrees Report" put out by AIP's Statistical Research Center (July 2002; AIP Pub. #R- 151.38). The number of physics doctorates granted in 2000 dropped four percent from the previous year, continuing a steep decline since the early1990s that is expected to continue for several more years. First-year physics graduate student enrollments have shown a slight increase in the last few years, mostly due to an increase in foreign students, who make up 51 percent of the total students currently enrolled in graduate physics programs. The most recent workforce and degree information for the physics community can be found at http://www.aip.org/statistics.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
(301) 209-3094

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