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National Science Panel Warns of Scientist Shortage - 2004-05-05

A scientific panel that advises U.S. leaders warns that American pre-eminence in science and technology is in jeopardy because the country is facing a shortage of scientists and engineers. U.S. students are losing interest in the sciences and the country can no longer rely on as many foreigners to take their place.

First, the good news. The National Science Board, a non-government body created to advise the U.S. president and Congress on scientific and engineering matters, says the United States still retains its technical edge.

For the present, it continues to lead the world in research and development spending. As a result, the panel says the United States generates the largest share of research articles, produces a multitude of technical innovations, and develops numerous high-technology industries that exploit these innovations for the country's economic benefit.

So what is the problem that causes the National Science Board to worry? National Science Board member Robert Richardson, vice provost for research at Cornell University, says, ?The problem is that we are not training our own.?

He speaks of declining interest in science and engineering among U.S. students.

?Since 1975, the fraction of our population in the age range between 18 and 24 studying in colleges and universities the natural sciences and engineering, dropped from third in the world to seventeenth,? he said. ?That's not the way to become competitive in the coming generations.?

Paradoxically, the National Science Board says U.S. economic success is a contributing factor to the shortage because it leads to an increasing demand for technical workers. The panel predicts that if the trend is left unchecked, the number of U.S. citizens qualified for science and engineering jobs will remain level at best.

The United States has traditionally relied on foreigners to fill this gap. In 2000, students from abroad earned about 30 percent of U.S. masters degrees and 40 percent of its doctorates in science and engineering.

But the National Science Board says this outside source of talent is declining because of a sharp drop in U.S. visas issued after the September 2001 al-Qaida attacks and because Russia and developing Asian countries are luring this talent away by investing more in research and development.

Arden Bement, acting director of the National Science Foundation, the U.S. agency that funds non-medical research says, ?The developing world now fully understands that science and technology fuels economic development and growth rate.?

Mr. Bement adds, ?The rest of the world is increasing its investment and shifting from an economy that is predominantly export-based to begin, to address their internal domestic markets as well.?

As a result, the U.S. share of scientific research papers - while still the largest - has remained level since 1992, a trend not observed in other mature industrial nations. The National Science Board says the growth of research from east and southeast Asia indicates that region's growing technical competitiveness.

At a Washington news conference discussing the National Science Board findings, Cornell University's Robert Richardson refuted a reporter who asked if he thinks the United States is getting lazy.

He says a major part of the problem is a lack of inspiration for America's youth to turn toward the sciences. ?If we don't have the investment in the work force and scientific research, we're going to get left behind in a cloud of dust!?