NEWS | April 1, 2004

The Science and Engineering Workforce and National Security

By Michael L. Marshall, Timothy Coffey, Fred E. Saalfeld, and Rita R. Colwell Defense Horizons 39


The Science and Engineering Workforce and National SecurityOverview

Trends in the American science and engineering (S&E) workforce and national research and development (R&D) funding patterns and priorities have troubling implications for the economic and national security of our nation. Especially worrisome are:  

  • A general lack of interest among American-born youth, especially women and minorities, in pursuing education in the physical sciences, mathematics, environmental sciences, and engineering at the undergraduate and graduate levels;  
  • A rapidly accelerating accumulation of intellectual capital, including an educated S&E workforce, in China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan;  
  • A long-term decline in the overall Federal investment in R&D as a percentage of gross domestic product, especially among the physical sciences and engineering; and  
  • Reduced Department of Defense funding for research throughout the 1990s, a trend that has exacerbated the general decline in the physical sciences and engineering, despite the importance of these fields to the development of new military capabilities. 

There is no crisis today. Indeed, in several areas, such as computer science, the number of computer programmers exceeds demand, a situation largely caused by the collapse of the bubble, softness in the overall economy in recent years, and a trend toward off-shore outsourcing of such work. The basic problem that we face lies in understanding the trends and their implications for the future. It is important to gain this understanding soon because of the long delays involved in building a workforce with the required skills to replace the scientists and engineers of the baby-boom generation, who are retiring just as the needs of national defense and homeland security are increasing. 

In some important fields, the United States faces a potential S&E shortfall, while our foreign competitors are significantly increasing production of S&Es, and foreign graduate students are earning a significant percentage of the technical degrees granted by American universities.1 (table 1.) Especially noteworthy is increasing home-grown technical capability in Asia, which is exemplified by the rapid growth in the number of students receiving S&E doctorates from Asian institutions. Moreover, the fact that other nations are acquiring high-end innovation capabilities by building up their sophisticated science and technology (S&T) infrastructures and capabilities signifies growing global competition for scientific and engineering talent. This trend raises a question whether the United States can over the long term rely on an international S&E labor force to satisfy its needs.2