America's "Quiet Crisis" in Science and Tech Continues

Over the last 20 years, the number of science and technology jobs in America has grown by about 4.2 percent per year—yet the availability of qualified U.S.-born workers in those fields has only grown at about 1.5 percent per year. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president Shirley Ann Jackson calls the disparity between these two numbers a "quiet crisis," as it has forced companies in some of our most innovative fields to look abroad when they need to staff up.  "It’s quiet because we sort of don’t know what the situation is until its upon us," says Jackson. "Partly because people quietly retire. There are trends that occur, but we don’t see the real underlying trend for years.  But also, it takes a long time to create a high-functioning theoretical physicist or nuclear engineer.  And so it’s a time factor that makes us not see it."

In her Big Think interview, Jackson talks at length about this "quiet crisis," and suggests that we can get students more excited about science education by teaching them about the natural world early—building experiential science education into K-12—but also involving them in science outside of the classroom. She says it's a matter of "exciting" students and making them aware that there are interesting careers in science "and that they get to work on really cool stuff and really important things."

Trained as a theoretical physicist, Jackson was described by Time magazine in 2005 as "perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science." She was the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973, and has served as a professor of theoretical physics at Rutgers University and as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

Drawing on her knowledge of energy issues, Jackson also spoke about the question of whether we will be able to engineer and innovate our way out of the energy crisis, saying the key is that we have to "use what we have better, use less of it through conservation and efficiency—that’s a big gain—and there are very clever things we can do today.  Think about new propulsion systems, new materials that allow us to have new propulsion systems and new storage technologies and ultimately develop and push the alternative sources of energy."

She also responded to climate change skeptics, saying that even if the effects of global warming have been exaggerated, it's essentially better to be safe than sorry. "Whether we think the probability is a high that it is already upon us or will be within a short time, when we think consequence, then it says that maybe we mitigate," she says.  "And whether we think that climate changes are due to some fundamental long periodicity, natural evolution that depends on other things, if there is any exacerbating affect that we have on top of that and we think we can lessen that exacerbating affect, or if you think we really drive what we see; in either of those cases, because of consequence, we should do something about it."

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