President's S&T Council Considers the Nation's Innovation Ecosystem

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Publication date: 
15 April 2004

Members of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) spent March 30 listening to presentations on two timely S&T topics: the science and engineering workforce, and nanotechnology. During a morning briefing on workforce issues, Microsoft Executive Vice President Robert Herbold told committee members that the nation's economic competitiveness is affected by many more factors than simply "are we producing enough scientists and engineers?" The afternoon was devoted to presentations by representatives of academia, industry and government on what is known about the environmental and health impacts of engineered nanoscale materials, and possible regulatory mechanisms. The afternoon session will be covered in FYI #49.

In examining ways to maintain the strength of the nation's science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) capabilities, Herbold said, PCAST's Subcommittee on Science and Engineering Workforce/Education came to realize that this is only one component of a larger issue, which he called "protecting the nation's innovation ecosystem." This system, he said, comprises a mix of factors including research universities, R&D centers, government funded research, the venture capital industry and the free enterprise system; "things that other countries salivate for."

Herbold presented data indicating that the U.S. is producing a declining share of global science and engineering degrees (both baccalaureate and graduate), and that long-term shifts are likely in countries' shares of global STEM talent. He added that foreign countries producing significantly more science and engineering graduates typically have low wages, attracting R&D investment and numerous jobs. Until the standard of living in those countries rises substantially, he said, the disparity will cause some U.S. companies to outsource jobs to those countries in order to remain competitive.

Herbold acknowledged that predicting shortages in the U.S. STEM workforce was a "sensitive" issue, and said that the question instead should be whether the nation's talent base was "adequate" to maintain the health of the innovation ecosystem. The trends in degree production among U.S. citizens, he declared, were "alarming," and led the subcommittee to make a series of recommendations focused on improving K-12 science and math teaching and attracting more U.S. citizens to STEM careers. After reviewing many prior reports, the subcommittee proposed the following recommendations: execute President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative "with excellence;" strengthen K-12 science and math curricula; encourage alternative teacher certification, vouchers, and charter schools; and make the teaching profession more attractive. The subcommittee also urged universities to seek creative ways to retain student interest in STEM fields, develop alternate degree programs like a professional master's, and shorten the time to a PhD; and recommended establishment of a program of fellowships to attract more U.S. citizens to STEM careers and exploration of ways to retain non-U.S. citizens.

However, as several PCAST members commented and Herbold agreed, "most of the suggestions are out there" already. Council members questioned the scope and purpose of the report, and how it could have the greatest impact. Some thought that the report should emphasize a few of the most important recommendations; Herbold said it should serve as a "wake-up call" for preservation of the entire innovation ecosystem. OSTP Director and PCAST co-chair John Marburger suggested that the subcommittee incorporate the morning's discussion and present the report for consensus at a future date.

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