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A Workforce, If You Can Keep It

23 May 2003 (All day)

The federal government needs to move quickly on several fronts to guarantee an adequate supply of U.S. scientific workers, according to a new report by the National Science Board (NSB). Although the needs range from better salaries for public school science and math teachers to increased funding for basic research, the science board says that universities also have a major role to play. Bolstering retention rates among undergraduates who declare an interest in earning science and engineering (S&E) degrees, the report argues, could yield the biggest short-term payoff.

"It will require a culture change within departments," says biologist George Langford of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, chair of the board's education panel. "But if we succeed in improving the climate for undergraduate and graduate students, we can have a dramatic impact [on the number of students trained for scientific careers] by 2010."

The board, a presidentially appointed oversight body for the National Science Foundation, has spent nearly 3 years on the workforce report, a draft of which will be posted shortly on the NSB Web site. Women and minorities are "underused resources," according to the report, which laments "the movement of undergraduate students out of S&E fields and into other majors." It also warns that the country "may not be able to rely on the international labor market" to meet its needs.

The report calls for increased spending and attention at every point in the pipeline, with an emphasis on programs that successfully broaden participation and reduce attrition. But Langford says that the board deliberately omitted attaching any price tags until "all the stakeholders"--other federal agencies, the university community, state and local education officials, and industry--have weighed in.

Ralph Gomory, president of the Sloan Foundation, applauds the board's focus on the undergraduate years. Marye Anne Fox, chancellor of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, agrees that "the freshman year is critical" for keeping promising students on the scientific track. She says that successful techniques include a shift from lectures to hands-on activities, more research opportunities, smaller classes, and better mentoring and career counseling.

Langford acknowledges that the report's call for more S&E workers flies in the face of rising unemployment in most high-tech fields. But he labels the current slowdown a "temporary condition." What's more important, he says, is having enough talent on hand to take full advantage of science's role as "the engine for U.S. economic growth and national security."

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