Unsolved Question

Should we increase the number of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) graduates?


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  • Figure 1 (Rice, 2009): STEMing the Teacher Shortage

    Figure 2 (McVay): Three research scientists in lab coats meeting at round table

    There is a Need to Increase the Number of STEM Majors

  • The U.S. must ensure a continuous supply of highly trained STEM workers and a STEM literate population in order to maintain its global economic leadership [American Competitiveness Initiative, 2006].
  • There is a shortage of science and mathematics teachers in NC, especially in rural areas [UNC Tomorrow, 2008].
  • There is a severe shortage in the number of highly skilled STEM minorities and women graduates [Gilmer, 2007].
  • American Minorities (Asians/ Pacific Islanders, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaskan Natives) are expected to be more than half (52%) of the resident college-age (18-24 years old) population of the United States by 2050, up from 34% in 1999. However, in 1995 the percentage of undergraduate degrees in mathematics and statistics awarded to minorities was 18.8% and in 2004 it was 21.2%, well below the percentages of the resident college population [NSF, 2006].
  • Foreign workers make up an increasing share of STEM and Health PhDs and jobs [Butz, 2003; Freeman, 2009].
  • There are not enough degrees to keep pace with demand. One solution is to relax H1-B visa regulations to allow more foreign professionals to work in the U.S. [Snyder, 2007]
  • Looking at the years 1975 and 1999, a young adult's probability of obtaining a STEM degree has increased at a much slower rate in the U.S. when compared to other countries [Butz, 2003].
  • Whether it is because there is a shortage or a surplus of STEM majors, most researchers agree that America's most talented students are choosing other careers and this will be problematic for domestic innovation and for jobs related to national security [Benderly, 2010].

    There is No Need to Increase the Number of STEM Majors

  • We should focus instead on creating attractive career opportunities for the existing PhDs [Freeman, 2009].
  • Encouraging individual aspirations is more important than group disparities [Tierney, 2010].
  • The STEM shortage is a myth because shortages and surpluses resolve themselves via market trends. For example, shortages lead to increased salaries which then leads more people to choose the careers, so there is no need for any intervention [Rockwell, 2006].
  • Such predictions date to the Sputnik era, but none of the past predictions of shortages have come true [Benderly, 2010].
  • The federal government might purposely be creating a surplus of STEM workers with limited career opportunities so that they will have an increased number in the workforce for the Pentagon and other similar state agencies [Rockwell, 2006].
  • From 1975-2000 the general U.S. employment rate fell while the unemployment rate for some STEM PhDs rose [Butz, 2003].


    There are highly qualified proponents on both sides of this issue. Researchers seem to agree that some of the shortage indicators are problematic, but they disagree on the solution. Some authors ask for relaxed visa restrictions so that foreign professionals can meet demand while others advocate that we should do nothing so that the market will resolve itself when salaries rise. Some authors advocate for an increase in funding for programs designed to increase the number of STEM majors and others suggest that funding should instead be spent on creating more attractive career opportunities for existing PhDs. It is unrealistic to imagine a randomized experiment in various countries where different approaches are tested or even a small-scale experiment that would impact the choice of STEM majors, so observational studies should continue, especially as new policy decisions are made.

    I readily admit my own bias on this issue, because I teach STEM courses. However, I am convinced that our ability to compete and innovate in a global environment depends on a population that is educated in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I believe that we should increase the number of STEM trained individuals while at the same time encouraging and supporting diverse career opportunities for them. I imagine a society where more of our political leaders are trained in STEM, for instance. STEM majors are creative, flexible problem solvers who can contribute to society in many meaningful ways, so I believe that having more of them will help solve our major problems.

    Annotated References

    1. American Competitiveness Initiative (2006). Archived: American Competitiveness Initiative. http://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/competitiveness/index.html
      Federal Government Initiative.
      Federal funding for STEM was granted when the initiative was enacted into law in 2007 as the America Competes Act. The initiative quoted research from the National Academy of Sciences report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which is also known as the Augustine Report.
      The National Academies consist of committees of experts who serve for free and advise the federal government on STEM issues.

    2. Benderly, B.L. (2010). The Real Science Gap. Miller-McCune.
      Magazine Cover Story.
      Benderly summarizes both sides of the shortage issue and examines what points both sides agree are true.
      Beryl Lieff Benderly is a journalist who writes a monthly column on science policy and careers.

    3. Butz, W., G. Bloom, M. Gross, T. Kelly, A. Kofner, & H. Rippen (2003). Is There a Shortage of Scientists and Engineers? How Would We Know? RAND Issue Paper #IP241.
      Issue Paper.
      The authors explore the concept of shortage via a variety of definitions, and find that STEM graduates satisfy some of the shortage indicators, while violating others. The article also discusses strategies for addressing STEM shortages.
      William P. Butz is the president and chief executive officer of the Population Reference Bureau. Previously he was senior economist at the RAND Corporation and associate director of the U.S. Census Bureau. Gabriella A. Bloom has co-authored 10 STEM articles. Mihal E. Gross is a Program Officer at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), with an expertise in Functional Solid State and Nanoscale Materials Science. Previously she worked for Bell Laboratories and worked with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Terrence K. Kelly is a senior research at the RAND Corporation, with primary research areas in counterinsurgency, security force assistance, and nation-building. Previously he was the Senior National Security Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Aaron Kofner is an Associate Statistical/Quantitative Analyst at the RAND Corporation. Helga E. Rippen is the Director of Medical Informatics at Pfizer Health Solutions.

    4. Freeman, R.& D. Goroff (2009). Science and Engineering Careers in the United States: An Analysis of Markets and Employment. National Bureau of Economic Research. University Of Chicago Press.
      Research Conference Report.
      The authors explore factors that correlate with the supply of PhDs, including fellowships and the influx of foreign-born doctorates and assert that the solution is to create more attractive career opportunities.
      Richard B. Freeman is the Herbert Ascherman Chair in Economics at Harvard University. He directs the National Bureau of Economic Research / Sloan Science Engineering Workforce Projects, and is Senior Research Fellow in Labour Markets at the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance. Daniel L. Goroff is a Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He is on leave from Harvey Mudd College where he is a professor of mathematics and economics who previously served as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty.

    5. Gilmer, T.C. (2007). An Understanding of the Improved Grades, Retention and Graduation Rates of STEM Majors at the Academic Investment in Math and Science (AIMS) Program of Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Journal of STEM Education, 8(1 & 2), January-June. pp. 11-21.
      Journal Article.
      Gilmer summarizes research showing a severe shortage in the number of highly skilled STEM minorities and women graduates and discusses a program aimed at entering Freshman that increased the average GPA and the retention rate.
      T. Carter Gilmer is an analytic chemist and director of the Academic Investment in Math and Science program at Bowling Green State University.

    6. McVay, R. Three research scientists in lab coats meeting at round table. Creative image #AA049520. Getty Images. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/AA049520/Digital-Vision
      Figure 2

    7. National Science Foundation (2006). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Table C-7. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/pdf/december2006updates.pdf
      Federal Government Report.
      NSF presents data and projections related to STEM minority populations.
      The National Science Foundation is a government agency responsible for promoting STEM through research programs and education projects.

    8. Rice, G.A. & M. Young (2009). STEMing the Teacher Shortage Tide. National Association for Alternative Certification. November.
      Figure 1

    9. Snyder, D. (2007). Technology Firm Executives Say Immigration Barriers Hurt America. Fox News.
      News Article.
      Bill Gates and leading members of other technology companies advocate an increase in H1-B visas in order to increase the number of workers and supply the demand in the domestic workforce.
      Donald Snyder is a journalist for Fox News. Bill Gates was the chairman and co-founder of Microsoft and he previously worked as a programmer. He attended 2 years of college and published an article in theoretical computer science.

    10. Tierney, J. (2010). Legislation Won't Close Gender Gap in Sciences. Science Times. New York Times, June 15.
      Science column.
      Tierney questions the creation of federally funded workshops to enhance gender equity.
      John Tierney is a journalist for the New York Times who writes a Findings column and has been criticized by some for his reporting.

    11. Rockwell, L.H. (2006). The Myth of the Math and Science Shortage. Ludwig von Mises Daily. http://mises.org/daily/2051
      Rockwell asserts that there is no shortage.
      Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr. is a political commentator. He has a degree in English and he is the chairman of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

    12. UNC Tomorrow (2008). University of North Carolina Tomorrow. http://www.northcarolina.edu/nctomorrow/
      State Report.
      UNC Tomorrow attempts to anticipate and identify the needs of North Carolina as it sets goals in order to proactively respond.
      The team consisted of community leaders, public servants, 14 faculty members, and public input from almost $10,000 individuals.