Make the Right Claims

Chris Mooney has a new Science Progress column on the number of scientists that challenges the claim that there are not enough students earning science degrees.

The facts clearly say otherwise, no matter how you slice them. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2006--the last year for which data is currently available--the nation produced a record number of science and engineering Ph.D.s: 29,854 in total. This was the fourth year in a row that the total doctorate number has increased, and a 6.7 percent increase from the year 2005 (the previous record).

And what about less advanced degrees? It's the same story. "The numbers of S&E bachelor's and master's degrees awarded reached new peaks of 466,000 and 120,000, respectively, in 2005," reports the NSF in the 2008 edition of its Science and Engineering Indicators report.

The problem is, this isn't quite the claim that is generally made. Yes, I know, it's what was said in the op-ed Chris cites at the beginning of the piece, but the problem that most people writing about this issue cite is a decline in the number of American students majoring in those fields. And there, the numbers are a little less clear-- the number of US citizens earning science and engineering Ph.D.'s has remained fairly constant, slightly below the peak value around 2000. Meanwhile, a record number of degrees were awarded to foreign students on temporary visas.-- 10,792 in 2005, or 36% of the total, a steady increase from about 29% in 2000.

That's the problem most people talking about a shortage in science and engineering are talking about. It's not that we're producing too few scientists overall, it's that we're producing too few native-born scientists. You can quibble about whether that's a Bad Thing for science as a whole-- I tend to think that a rising tide lifts all boats, and don't have a huge problem with major discoveries being made in other countries, but it probably doesn't speak well for our educational system that only half of the students earning advanced degrees in science and engineering were born and raised here.


More like this

Not the financial market, but the market for highly trained folks in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In particular, why do people keep talking about the need for a larger talent pool in STEM when so many Ph.D.s and postdocs are having a rough time finding permanent…
There's been lots of news from the AAS meeting in Seattle this week, but the best from my perspective is that high school physics enrollments have neevr been higher: Presenting new data that encourage this outlook, [Michael] Neuschatz [senior research associate at AIP's Statistical Research Center…
It's job-hunting season in academia, which also means it's talking-about-the-job-market season. After writing the previous post, I noticed a post on the same topic by Steve Hsu, who was interviewed for a Chronicle of Higher Education article (temporary free link, look quickly!) about the lousy job…
This week's Nature has a horribly depressing article. If you're a graduate student, don't read any further. Really, stop. I hate to see young biologists cry. NSF data show that the number of students in US graduate programmes in the biological sciences has increased steadily since 1966. In 2005,…

In addition, I believe (but do not have a cite on hand so take this fact as coming from a stranger on the internet) that a much higher percentage of the foreign students getting a Ph.D. are choosing to return to their home country than in the past.

The relevant NSF figures are on the web. The fraction of foreign Ph.D.'s with "firm plans to stay" in the US at the time they receive their degree has remained around 50%. It's actually increased very slightly over the last few years.

Imports work cheaper, driving down the mean price.

I stand corrected!

Our educational system is what it may be, but I suspect fewer Americans going for advance degrees will relate more to two factors
1) Sheer numbers. "They have more honors kids than we have kids".
2) Opportunity disparity. Why would a smart US kid get a PhD in physics or biology when she could play with nicer geeks with a bachelors in CS, or go make ridiculously more money on wall street? Also, the grad student lot is sadder relative to other jobs for US citizens, but not so much for lots of people coming from India and China.

Here's a possibly-odd question - how the heck are so many foreign students able to AFFORD to get PhD's in the US? Are they just getting much less expensive undergraduate degrees in their native countries and then coming to the US where they can survive debt-free(?) on their TA job or whatever while they finish their PhD?

Let me state at the outset that I have a real hard time taking Chris Mooney seriously. If his dog wet the carpet, he'd wring his hands and find a way to blame Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers.

Aside from extreme talent or a very bad grasp of economics, why would any American get an advanced degree in engineering or the sciences? The cost of higher education has skyrocketed in the past quarter century, grants and other aid have all but evaporated, and unless you're an engineer or specialize in a winnowingly-small set of applications, your advanced degree in a science doesn't translate to a private sector job, and the public sector isn't hiring. Between the pomos, the Biblical literalists, the anti-intellectual "hard-headed" businessmen, credulous reporters, and the cult of the MBA (chief among them, Marketing), there's zero value or respect afforded to the technical class. Zip, zero, nada.

So with the assumption that a bachelor's degree in science, engineering, or computer "science" gives you, say, a five-fold advantage over a person of letters, and balancing the opportunity cost of paying to stay in school vs boosting your starting salary with an advanced degree (not counting the bias against advanced degrees in certain fields), it simply does not make personal financial sense to keep yourself out of the job market any longer than necessary if you don't want to die poor.

Face it - the US is run by and for the useless managerial class, people whose skill essentially boils down to being tall. First unskilled labor was offshored, then skilled labor, then tech support, then software development, now engineering. Who is left but Wall Street, executives, and marketing wonks? What use have they for anyone who can do anything but gladhand and cook books?

Maybe the national mood will change in the coming years as the effects of exorbitant gas prices and global warming wreak further havoc on our economy. Grudgingly, American society may pretend to value math, science, engineering, and education in general but believe me, it'll stop as soon as the economy and environment recovers.

I wish I could be less cynical but the more I read and the more I watch the news, the less faith I have that Americans can shake off their dirt-farmer roots and fund education and basic research as a social good. When more Americans believe in UFOs and literal talking snakes than in natural selection and radiometric dating, it's hard to expect much of them. Of course, if the economic disparity between the extremely wealthy and the average to poor wasn't so lopsided, maybe people would have more willingness to fund the arts and sciences. It's hard to justify looking for hadrons when one's job, health care, and next meal are so uncertain.

PS: Fat lot of good my BS & MS in nuclear engineering are doing me. Still, I'm doing better than most.

Epicanis: Many countries, like my native Sweden, have affordable student loans, and it is often possible to get an extra amount to pay for tuition.

Then there are probably many that take their undergraduate degrees at home as you suggest as well.

Another issue with numbers like these is that they are absolute numbers, not percentages. Yes, of course the number of science/math/engineering degrees has increased over time--but so has the population. What I'd really like to see, and what would do a better job of convincing me that there is or is not a problem, is information on the percentage of students that receive S/M/E degrees each year. Is that percentage increasing? decreasing? remaining fixed? The total number of Ph.D.s could be increasing, but if the population is increasing faster, then those numbers don't mean diddly.

What I'd really like to see, and what would do a better job of convincing me that there is or is not a problem, is information on the percentage of students that receive S/M/E degrees each year. Is that percentage increasing? decreasing? remaining fixed?

The best I can offer is that while the number of bachelor's degrees has gone up significantly (from 1.25 million to 1.44 million since 2000), the fraction of degrees in science and engineering has remained around 32%.

This is an imperfect proxy for the total student population, but it's what I can find in the NSF data.