In his Aug. 10 op-ed column, "It's Not a Science Gap (Yet)," Robert J. Samuelson acknowledged that we are producing "a shrinking share of the world's technological talent," but he argued that we can import such talent. But tightened visa policies since Sept. 11, 2001, have reduced the number of foreign students applying to study here. Moreover, other countries are competing for that same talent.
Mr. Samuelson explained that we must depend on foreign talent because we don't pay scientists and engineers enough. But a better explanation, one supported by studies, is the poor performance of U.S. students in math and science compared with students in other countries, coupled with their lack of interest in these subjects.
Another serious problem is the amount of federal investment in basic research in the physical sciences. This critical investment has remained static for the past 30 years.
Beyond the need for scientists, engineers and mathematicians, we need a math- and science-literate workforce equipped with the knowledge and skills to meet the demands of the 21st-century workplace.
U.S. students' math and science achievement begins to decline, compared with their international peers, in middle school. Yet two-thirds of middle school students are taught mathematics, and more than half are taught science, by teachers who lack a major in those subjects.
We cannot maintain our technological leadership without improving our performance. Before we can begin to do that, however, we must stop making excuses and acknowledge the problem.
JOHN J. CASTELLANI
Robert J. Samuelson missed a big factor that limits the number of U.S. students willing to pursue science careers: location.
Doctors and lawyers can find work just about anywhere, but if you want to work at a synchrotron facility, you pretty much have to live near Chicago or on Long Island.
If a scientist has the misfortune to be caught in a downsizing, relocation is often unavoidable. When Dow Chemical, based in Midland, Mich., has a layoff, who else in Midland is going to hire a polymer chemist? Factor in spouses who have careers, and you have a family-unfriendly situation.
Add to that the changes in demand for a particular specialization. What do you do if you've invested several years in a program of study, only to see the bottom drop out of the market when you're six months from graduation? Aerospace and nuclear engineering used to be hot. Now, everyone wants geneticists and bioengineers.
After I got my doctorate in chemistry, I spent three years in one postdoctoral position and two years in another 800 miles away. I moved 1,780 miles to take my first industrial lab position, then got laid off 21/2 years later. I got another industry job 750 miles away, which lasted 15 months before I was laid off, then I was essentially unemployed for almost two years.
After that second layoff, I stopped looking for laboratory work. I landed an editing job in 1996, and I've been steadily employed as a writer and editor ever since.
With all the obstacles that clutter a scientist's career path, it takes a very determined person to stay the course.
Robert J. Samuelson overlooked perhaps the biggest contributor to the problem we face in the engineering field: the collapse of U.S. manufacturing.
Scientists and engineers make up 8.7 percent of the manufacturing labor force, a share that is nearly twice as large as in the rest of the economy. Yet this country has lost 2.8 million manufacturing jobs since January 2001.
A true manufacturing employment recovery would create at least 250,000 science and engineering jobs. If the United States wants to raise wages and increase incentives for students to study science and engineering, the best way to do it is by rebuilding manufacturing.
ROBERT E. SCOTT
Economic Policy Institute