United States Facing a Shortage of Scientists and Engineers

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
August 18, 2004

Summer in the US is traditionally a time for recreation, but a study by the National Science Foundation's policy board strongly suggests that the United States needs to get working on training and retaining scientists. The report, An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force, outlines trends in the labor market (science jobs), the workforce, the role of foreign-born researchers and how the development of other countries is affecting science research in this country.


Since 1980, the number of jobs requiring science and engineering (S & E) expertise has increased at more than four times the rate of growth for all other jobs. Each year, the number of jobs in the US requiring science skills increases by 5%. In comparison, the rest of the labor force grows by 1% annually. So each year, there is more demand for scientists and engineers. Who is going to fill these jobs?

Workforce: Retirement and Replacement of Workers

In the next 20 years, many professionals in S & E will retire. This is because more than half of the S & E degree holders now are in their 40s or older; 30% are age 55 or older. To keep pace with scientists retiring, colleges need to train students in the sciences. Yet fewer and fewer students are choosing careers in science. The numbers of students between the ages of 18-24 years earning natural sciences and engineering degrees has fallen: in 1975, the US placed 3rd compared to other countries; now the US is in 17th place. In other words, there are not enough new researchers to replace the retiring researchers and there will be a gap in the workforce.

The Role of Foreign-Born Scientists: Filling the Gap

In the past, the US has filled this gap with foreign-born researchers. These researchers come to the US for their training, earning their doctorates (PhDs) from US universities. Many stay in this country to apply their science skills, working in universities or biotechnology companies. This number peaked in the year 2000, when 38% of the employed S & E PhDs were held by foreign-born researchers. Indeed, in 2001, foreign-born students earned more than half of the PhDs in science and engineering in this country.

After September 11, 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks, the US clamped down on foreign-born researchers. It is now more difficult to enter the US to study, and it is more difficult for foreign-born researchers to stay here once they attain a PhD. For example, the number of VISAs (work permits) issued to foreign-born workers dropped 20% in 2001 from the previous year, according to the US State Department. As a result, there are fewer foreign-born students earning PhDs in the US and fewer foreign-born researchers working here now.

To replace the retiring S & E professionals, more college students need to get degrees in the sciences. Over the past 10 years, the number of bachelor degrees in the science has increased, in part because of strong interest in the fields of computer science, psychology and the biological sciences. Engineering degrees, however, have dropped by 8% during this time and math degrees have plummeted by 20%.

Additional Factors: Brain Drain

Brain drain refers to educated workers leaving a country. It is not only that the United States is not training enough scientists, its also that other countries are catching up to the US in terms of scientific excellence. This translates into scientists leaving the US to work elsewhere. Since the 1980s, other countries have invested money and resources in S & E education and jobs at a higher rate than the US. For example, Europe has many excellent research institutions with top-notch students and resources. China is improving its resources for scientists, and offers cheaper labor than the US. Every year there are more jobs abroad: between 1993 and 1997, the US saw a respectable increase of 11% in science jobs but other developed countries increased their science and engineering jobs by a whopping 23%.

The Bottom Line: The US Needs to Train and Retain More S & E Researchers

The US can no longer rely on foreign-born talent to fill our science jobs. Having trained scientists is critical to the "health, security and prosperity" of the US, as the National Science Foundation report concludes. In order to have more US citizens with PhDs employed in S & E jobs, more students need to be prepared to enter graduate school. This means, working backwards along the education pipeline, more undergraduates (college students) need to take science courses, and to be prepared for college-level courses, more high school students need to take science classes. To be successful in high school courses, more junior high/middle school students need to sign up for science classes. And the move to fill the gap in S & E education and jobs has to begin now. Even if the US starts to support science in an unprecedented way, and middle school students everywhere decide to become scientists, these students would not complete their advanced training until 2018 or 2020!!

Did you know?

  • Since 1996, the number of PhD degrees awarded in the biomedical sciences has remained stable at around 5,000 per year in the US (In an Era of Scientific Opportunity, Are There Opportunities for Biomedical Scientists? Garrison, H.H., Gerbi, S.A. and Kincade, P.W. FASEB journal, October 8, 2003).

  • In the 10 years between 1990 and 2000, S & E jobs held by foreign-born researchers (PhD level) increased from 24% to 38% (National Science Board report, "An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force," January 2004).

  • The US Department of Labor predicts a 21% increase in demand for PhD-level position in industry for biology between 200 and 2010 (Homegrown Scientists, November 25, 2003).

Are you considering a career in science?



References and Further Information:

  1. An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force from the National Science Foundation (NSF)
  2. National Science Board report, "Science and Engineering Indicators 2004", View figures, tables, print from a PDF version, or request a CD.
  3. Another Day, Another Neuron from Neuroscience for Kids
  4. A Career in Neuroscience: A Game of "Survivor?" from Neuroscience for Kids

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