Summary Report

Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent

Michael Teitelbaum

Princeton, 2014,
October 9, 2014

Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer with long-standing interests in S&E issues as a vice-president of the Sloan Foundation, discussed the history of concerns about shortages of S&E students and workers with 45 participants at UCD on October 9, 2014.

Teitelbaum described five rounds of “alarm-boom-bust” cycles since World War II:  first the sounding of alarm about shortages of S&E workers; then a boom in S&E as government subsidizes more R&D and training of S&E students, or admits foreigners with S&E credentials; followed by a bust as enthusiasm wanes and the demand for S&E workers falls, and many of those who have earned S&E degrees face unattractive career prospects. This alarm-boom-bust cycle distorts S&E education systems and labor markets, and leaves the US S&E enterprise worse off

The first three alarm-boom-bust rounds or cycles were linked to the Cold War, especially the response to the Soviet launching of two Sputnik satellites in 1957 (round 2) and the 1980s defense buildup during the Reagan Administration  (round 3).  During these first three cycles of alarm-boom-bust, the response was primarily domestic, and included strong efforts to attract US students into science, engineering and mathematics.  

During the most recent rounds of concern with S&E shortages, beginning in the mid-1990s, a new option arose -- import foreign students, workers, and immigrants to fill US S&E jobs. Teitelbaum explained how advocates who would benefit from more foreign students, workers, and immigrants commissioned “research” to demonstrate that there were S&E shortages and to justify calls for easier admissions processes and more visas.

The arguments about S&E labor markets have long been shrouded in myths. The share of US college students who begin college with S&E majors has been 30 percent for decades, so problems in K-12 schools are not a reason why US students avoid S&E majors. Indeed, almost all of those graduating with bachelor's degrees in S&E fields are US-born. The share of foreign-born graduates rises with level of education, so that half or more of those earning PhDs in a few S&E fields are foreign-born.

There are rational reasons for the different behaviors of US- and foreign-born students. In engineering, there is typically little earnings payoff to a higher-than-BS degree, so US students who can find jobs with BS degrees have little incentive to earn advanced degrees. Doctoral degrees often are required in the sciences, but earning a PhD is often followed by many years as a low-paid post-doc, which discourages many talented US-born students who have other career options.

There are also rational reasons for the continuing claims of S&E labor shortages. In a development largely not anticipated in 1990 when the H-1B visa program was created, Indian and other outsourcers use these visas to bring IT workers into the US, understand their client's IT needs, and then send much of the work back to India to be done at lower cost. Offshore outsourcers such as Cognizant are the leading users of H-1B visas, although US-based firms such as Intel and Microsoft have been leading lobbying efforts to raise the annual cap on H-1B visas, currently 65,000 a year plus 20,000 for foreigners who earn masters or higher degrees from US universities.  In addition, universities and non-profit research institutes can use H-1B visas with no numerical limits.

The debate over S&E labor shortages is like many other public policy debates in an age of advocacy and polarization, framed by advocates who assert that the US risks falling behind in the global quest for talent and brainpower at one extreme versus those who argue for developing needed human capital primarily from the domestic population. Instead of a rational discussion of how to make adjustments to improve US competitiveness, sweeping and often mis-leading generalizations are advanced to achieve what are sometimes narrow goals, such as lower-wage IT workers.

In most public policy issues, there are no solutions, only trade offs. Teitelbaum explored the trade offs in dealing with S&E labor markets, warning against what appear to be quick fixes that can aggravate the problems these fixes aim to solve.