Wednesday, October 28, 2009

We Need Fewer Science Majors Not More

It's an article of faith: the United States needs more native-born students in science and other technical fields. The National Academies' influential Rising Above the Gathering Storm report in 2006 said the nation should "enlarge the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in science, engineering, or mathematics" to remain competitive. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce had a similar message on the gap in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students a year before. President Barack Obama has pushed for more science teachers and training for the same reason.

But a new paper (pdf) contradicts the notion of a shrinking supply of native-born talent in United States. "Those who advocate increasing the supply of STEM talent should cool their ardor a little bit," says one of its authors, B. Lindsay Lowell, a demographer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The supply has actually remained steady over the past 30 years, the researchers conclude from an analysis of six longitudinal surveys conducted by the U.S. government from 1972 to 2005. However, the highest-performing students in the pipeline are opting out of science and engineering in greater numbers than in the past, suggesting that the threat to American economic competitiveness comes not from inadequate science training in school and college but from a lack incentives that would make science and technology careers attractive.

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