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U.S. Degrees in STEM and Funding Fail to Keep Pace Globally

While developing countries have increased investment in higher education and produced more science and engineering graduates, the United States has reduced funding at major research universities, and American students are not keeping up with degrees in those fields.

That information was released today by the National Science Board in the 2012 "Science and Engineering Indicators" report.

In 2008, U.S. students earned 4 percent of the world's engineering degrees, while 56 percent were awarded in Asia, including one-third in China. The number of natural-science and engineering degrees in China went from 280,000 annually to 1 million between 2000 and 2008. South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan together produced 330,000 graduates in these fields in 2008, compared with 248,000 in the United States, even though the U.S. population was considerably larger (300 million versus 200 million for those countries combined).

At a time when college enrollment is up in the United States, public support is down. State funding per student at the 101 research institutions reviewed by the NSB dropped by 20 percent in constant dollars—from $10,195 in 2002 to $8,157 in 2010. Overall state funding for higher education dropped in 35 of the 50 U.S. states in the past two years.

"Following the two recessions that bookended the past decade, states had serious budget shortfalls," said Ray Bowen, chairman of the NSB in a statement. "But the decline in support for postsecondary education, especially public research universities, is a cause for great concern as we examine the condition of U.S. global competitiveness."

Many feel that the number of U.S. students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—STEM—careers is too small, but it is too soon to know the long-term consequences for innovation and economic development, said José-Marie Griffiths, S&E Indicators chairman of the NSB in a press briefing this afternoon.

There are many factors and no simple answers to reversing this trend, she said. "It is often seen as a higher education issue, but we have to address this issue in the early grades and middle school," she said. Griffiths referenced earlier NSB reports that emphasize recognizing and nurturing science and engineering talent early.

About one-third of bachelor degree graduates have steadily been in STEM fields. But Rolf Lehming, director of the Science and Engineering Indicators Program, added that the number of degrees in the physical sciences and engineering, considered critical to innovation, have not reflected the overall increase in college enrollment. "There is a disconnect that somehow we have not been able to solve," he said today.

An article in the Jan/Feb. issue of the Columbia Journalism Review suggests that the public perception that there is a shortage of American scientists is largely a myth.

Lehming said in the press call today that there is no evidence that these data are representative of a shortage of scientists.

There is talk, however, of a need for more women and minorities to go into STEM careers. Women's representation in the science and engineering workforce has gradually risen from 23 percent in 1993 to 27 percent five years later, the report notes. Underrepresented minorities, including blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives, have made strides, but their representation in these jobs remains below their proportion in the population. In both instances, participation has continued to rise over the last five years, but more slowly than in the 1990s, according to the NSB findings.

More role models are needed at universities to encourage underrepresented groups to pursue these fields, added Griffiths.

The findings should be kept in perspective, added Bowen.

"It's too early in the discussion to conclude that we have gloom and doom. We have a robust environment at research universities," he said. "It's important that policymakers have a long-term view in support of these enterprises."

In the coming months, the NSB will issue a policy companion piece to this report with more in-depth recommendations regarding investment in science and engineering education.

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