Our "Quiet Crisis" in Science and Technology

America's most innovative companies are having an increasingly hard time finding qualified staffers who were born in the U.S.
  • Transcript


Question: You have said that there is a "quiet crisis" as America is falling behind in science and technology. Why?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Over the last 20 years or more, the actual growth in technology- and science-linked jobs has been about 4.2 percent per year.  The actual availability of U.S.-born workers in those fields has grown at about 1.5 percent per year.  And then when you look at jobs in new areas, in the nanotechnology arena for instance, people say one of the greatest challenges they have is finding a well-qualified workforce—and that’s at a baseline level; we’re not talking necessarily people with Masters' and PhDs.  At the higher educational levels, we really are not attracting as many young people as we should, particularly to not only get first degrees in these fields, but to move on and get graduate degrees. 

Now fortunately for us, we’ve been able to attract really exquisite talent from abroad and so that’s been kind of the secret sauce that we’ve always been able to attract talent from abroad.  But you know what?  Other countries, now, they’re emulating our model.  They are creating massive research infrastructure, building up their universities.  Creating new enterprises with a lot of government support.  And they are beginning to attract many of these educated people in the sciences and engineering back home.  But there’s a global race for talent, so they’re also being attracted to places that may not be back home; but they’re not necessarily countries that are where we would think. And so that means they aren’t necessarily staying here. 

So yes, I think there is still a quiet crisis because it’s a subtle point.  It’s quiet because we sort of don’t know what the situation is until its upon us; 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 addition, a lot of the technologies that we take for granted and where a lot of the cool things come from; whether we’re talking iPods or iPads or Kindles or X-Boxes, really are built on technologies that were developed 20 and 30 and 40 years ago, and discoveries that were made that long ago. 

So it’s quiet.  It comes and creeps in on us, but it’s a crisis because it turns out that scientists and engineers only comprise about five percent of the workforce.  And so by the time we come to grips with the situation, the fact that it takes so long to really educate a person; to really be well-grounded in these arenas, it’s a crisis, because we can’t fix it fast at that point.

Have President Obama's policies done anything to improve this?

Shirley Ann Jackson: The Obama Administration has a very strong commitment to science and engineering; to supporting basic research; to appreciating the role of science and technology and helping to solve some of our greatest challenges; whether we’re talking energy security or climate change.  If you witness who the Secretary of Energy is and the kinds of things he’s been trying to propagate; if you look at who the new Director of the NIH is, the National Institutes of Health, and you look at the kind of things that he has done in his career and what he’s trying to do at NIH, there’s a re-centering on the fundamental role of science and engineering.  But there’s also a lot more support for basic research, but more importantly, there’s the leadership from the top because the President himself speaks about the importance of this.  And in fact, challenges scientists and engineers as well to take more of an active role in reaching out and educating and exciting the young people then helping people to understand it.  And he’s doing this against a backdrop, as you know, of a very difficult economic and budgetary situation.  But the scientific community is very much more hopeful, I would say.

In the wake of the recession, how does science education need to change?

Shirley Ann Jackson:  Well, there’s a level at which one could argue that all industries to be at the leading edge and for us to be globally competitive and rebuild our manufacturing and our export base have and need a root in the latest breakthroughs in science and engineering and, having said that, let me go back to the commentary about the U.S. auto industry and whether we should write it off. 

You know, there’s kind of a story that people probably don’t think about so much and that is 20 or more years ago, the U.S. was very worried about losing its lead and edge in advanced chip... microprocessor design and manufacturing, at that point, to Japan.  And so with the government support, a consortium of what are really some fairly large companies, came together to lay out a technology road map as to what the industry needed to do and where the government could support what the industry needed to do to stay ahead of the curve, to sort of catch up as it were, and then stay ahead of the curve.  And that roadmap essentially has been followed and that’s why we have the great Intels and the other major chip design and manufacturing enterprises still in this country and where a lot of the manufacturing, not all of it, but a lot of it still goes on here.  So I wouldn’t quite write the auto industry off, although there are a lot of structural issues and changes that need to occur. 

But having said that, if one wants to think about the workforce of the future and what kinds of characteristics people need to have: people have to be a lot more intellectually agile than they are because things change so fast, and markets really are global and innovation is everywhere, and people, even if they work for one company, are going to find that they’re going to be working with counterparts around the globe and that they’re going to need to at least understand and appreciate how to at least ride the wave of new and evolving technologies to optimize what they do in their own business processes and their own enterprises, even if those enterprises are not "high tech," so to speak.  But at the same time, as I always argue, we need more scientists than engineers because the way to really be globally pre-eminent is to be innovative and stay ahead of the innovation curve.  We still are the most innovative country in the world, but where we’ve been lagging is continuing to invest and move ahead in those areas that have kept us ahead from the focus on fundamental research; having the kind of infrastructure one needs to help new entrepreneurial start-up companies cross the various valleys of death; create the kind of workforce that is minimally scientifically literate and out of which, we hope, will come more scientists and engineers.

Recorded May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman