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FYI Number 121: August 15, 2005

House Democrats Examine S&T Workforce, Leadership Issues

Two Capitol Hill events this summer looked at how the U.S. can maintain a global lead in science and technology in the face of growing competition from abroad. A June 23 roundtable discussion was organized by House Democrats, and on July 21 the full House Science Committee also explored this topic. The Science Committee hearing will be covered in FYI #122.

The Democrats' roundtable was led by Science Committee Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL). Participants differed on whether or not the U.S. was producing a sufficient number of domestic scientists and engineers, depending on the fields, degrees, and time period considered. However, they agreed that policymakers need to encourage the collection of more comprehensive and reliable data, and to address questions of what makes a business, policy and regulatory environment that fosters innovation, and how U.S. S&T workers can be educated and prepared in such a way that they have skills that set them apart from workers in other countries.

Gordon opened the discussion by describing the increasing movement of high-tech jobs overseas, and asking what can, and should, be done about it. "There is some question" whether the offshoring of technical jobs is ultimately detrimental or beneficial to the U.S. economy, Costello noted. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) asked whether the U.S. was producing enough S&T workers, what would be accomplished by producing more, and whether the education system needed to be changed to produce a different type of worker.

Although other nations are increasing their investments in R&D and their production of scientists and engineers, "we can't just blame others for doing what we've been preaching for years and years," said Dave McCurdy of the Electronic Industries Association (EIA). "It is not a zero-sum game." Cautioning against coming up with solutions that were "neat, simple, and wrong," he cited a series of recommendations made by EIA in a 2004 report (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/067.html) to ensure an environment that promotes innovation by addressing trade policies, workforce assistance and training, K-12 math and science education, attracting the best talent from around the world, dealing with healthcare and regulatory costs, and increasing government investment in basic R&D.

"No one has reliable figures" on the number and types of jobs being outsourced to other countries, said Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology. To the question of whether offshoring is good or bad for the U.S. overall, he said, "We don't know.... It depends on how we react." He called for government action to mitigate observed negative impacts, such as job displacement, wage depression, and the disincentive to young people to enter S&T fields. But "vilifying" industry CEOs for seeking cheaper labor is not appropriate, he remarked; both CEOs and workers are "acting rationally." The "old model" of maintaining U.S. preeminence by pumping more money into R&D might not work as it has in the past, Hira warned, because companies are "taking the latest tools and technologies to foreign labor."

National Science Board (NSB) member George Langford of Dartmouth College highlighted NSB concerns that U.S. degree production in S&T fields may not be able to keep up with the creation of high-tech jobs, a situation that he said would be exacerbated by the aging of the S&T workforce (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2003/076.html). He recommended policies that would encourage more U.S. citizens to enter S&T careers, as well as continuing to attract outstanding talent from abroad. However, there are "no credible...projections of future demand growth on which policy responses for supply may be based," Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation countered. Both supply and demand are heavily influenced by government decisions that are made for political reasons and cannot be anticipated, he said. "If you base policies on what you think the demand is going to be in 10 years, you're going to be in trouble," he declared. Teitelbaum advocated instead a "different kind of degree" that prepared S&T professionals to be "more nimble" and better prepared with workplace skills such as project management, financial planning, working in groups and giving presentations. McCurdy agreed on the need to prepare workers with skills "not easily transferable," like flexibility and innovativeness, and cautioned against "just mass-producing" S&T workers.

"I would say more is not better," Hira echoed. But he said it is going to be "a lot more difficult than most people think," to find methods to differentiate U.S. workers from their foreign counterparts, because curriculum reforms initiated here will spread overseas quickly. He also noted that American companies are investing "less and less" in lifelong learning for employees. The government has to step in by reforming and expanding worker assistance and retraining programs, he said, but that "hasn't happened."

Langford suggested addressing factors that affect the "opportunity costs" of an S&T degree and may dissuade students from entering those fields. Teitelbaum, noting that the current S&T labor market was "relatively weak" and not likely to "draw increasing numbers of bright and informed young people," called for focusing on the demand side of the equation. He said the numbers of students pursuing higher degrees and postdoctoral positions in science and engineering was closely linked to federal R&D funding. Funding decisions should be made in a deliberate way, rather than "doubling over five years and then stopping." The first rule for policy decisions should be "do no harm," McCurdy said, adding, "Be careful about short-term fixes."

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

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