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What Do We Really Mean When Discussing Science and Engineering Competitiveness?

U.S. flag“It is much easier to say we need more scientists and engineers than to talk about equity issues,” explained panelist David Goldston yesterday at an Urban Institute event assessing data on science and engineering education, quality, and workforce demand. “We have the largest gap between rich and poor that we’ve had since the Gilded Age,” Goldston said. “How will these policies fit into that?”

Goldston, a scholar in residence at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the former staff director of the House Science and Technology Committee under Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), was responding to the new report, “Into the Eye of the Storm,” by B. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, and Harold Salzman, a sociologist and senior research associate at the Urban Institute. Their study argues against conventional wisdom to say that U.S. students are improving in performance in math and science and that the number of graduates in science and engineering actually exceeds the available jobs.

Industry and policy professionals alike have argued that declines in the S&E workforce threaten U.S. economic competitiveness, especially with China and India graduating large numbers of scientists and engineers each year. Goldston noted that, “we need to make sure that we’re not using competitiveness as a screen.”

Indeed, Salzman and Lowell’s findings suggest that education reform may not be the key to maintaining the prominence of U.S. science and engineering in the global market. But Golston pointed out that competitiveness is not the ultimate issue. Rather, he suggested, “we need to talk about what kind of economic future we want the U.S. to have.”

Reorienting U.S. science and engineering policy for the 21st century should not focus solely on producing more engineers and scientists, he said. Policymakers must also ensure that graduates entering these fields have the opportunity to analyze problems and design solutions that make our economy more dynamic and more equitable.

Tackling this issue from a different angle, William Bates, vice president for government affairs at the Council on Competitiveness, lauded the U.S. S&E students for their creativity, pointing to programs such as the Georgia Tech Computer Science program, which marries traditional instruction in computer architecture with various “threads” leading to practical application of those fundamentals. “We need scientists that think like artists and artists that think like engineers,” he said.

That’s exactly what other countries are learning from the United States, added Salzman. He pointed out that test scores in South Korea, Japan, and Singapore outpace those of the U.S. in math and science but are low on reading and literacy. South Korea in particular is backing away from education policies that emphasize “test-and-drill” results and instead cultivate creativity and innovation.

The major report sounding the alarm on the state of U.S. STEM education is the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm, but Goldston pointed out that Salzman and Lowell’s new data analysis does not necessarily mean that the recommendations of the former report are misguided. Improving STEM education is in general a good thing and, as Goldston pointed out in an August editorial in Nature (subscription), none of the Gathering Storm recommendations “contributes in any obvious way to the agenda of an interest group.” In the same article, Goldston wrote that:

As a result, Congress hasn’t spent much time discussing, say, what might be done to increase the demand for, rather than just the supply of, scientists and engineers, or what sort of training they should be getting in the liberal arts. Rather, in an era of unprecedented global competition, most of the policy ideas are simply recycled proposals from the competitiveness debate that occurred two decades ago, when the United States felt threatened by Japan.

That’s why policy makers and scientists alike must challenge reactive questions like, “How do we stay ahead,” which do not serve the long-term interests of the U.S. economy, U.S. citizens, or the global common good. Or, as Daniel Sarewitz, Director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, pointed out in his recent analysis of U.S. science policy, most elements of the debate simply revolve around questions of “how much” rather than questions of “what for.”

If we can understand from Salzman and Lowell’s paper that the country is not fumbling into the future with a shrinking cohort of inept science and engineering graduates, then we can begin to ask how to shape an economy that gives those bright minds the space and resources to make the world a better place.

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