Countries have a national interest in encouraging and monitoring advances in science and engineering. In the United States, that interest has been recognized at least since 1950, when Congress created the National Science Foundation.
Official interest, however, doesn't always mean interest on the part of individual citizens. The latest report from the National Science Board, which oversees the NSF, suggests the latter may be lagging just when it's most needed.
The board's Science and Engineering Indicators found that fewer college graduates are seeking higher degrees in scientific fields. After decades of growth, enrollments in science and engineering graduate programs fell by 2 percent a year from 1994 to 1997.
This slip in advanced scholarly work - admittedly not precipitous, but noteworthy - could portend a shortage of highly qualified people just ahead, both to teach at the college level and to fill key posts in industry. Increased retirement of baby-boomer scientists and engineers could add to the problem.
The ready answer to this prospect, of course, is to draw even more talent from overseas. With the push to increase the supply of H1B visas for skilled workers, this strategy is well under way.
But it has limitations. First, some countries, China for instance, are striving to improve their own graduate universities in order to keep top talent at home. Second, this country must do more to develop its own intellectual resources.
The higher numbers of women entering scientific fields is encouraging. Forty percent of those enrolled in master's and PhD programs in science in 1997 were women, according to the report. But there's still much untapped potential among black and Hispanic Americans.
That potential is recognized by various business-educational alliances that are trying to bring a wider range of young people into scientific and technical work. Their work needs to be amplified. Already, nearly 30 percent of the real growth in US gross domestic product is being generated by information technology industries, and that's likely to increase, generating a big demand for trained talent.
The trends are hopeful. Demographic data points to a gradual replenishing of America's college-age population beginning next year. School-reform efforts should give more students a better foundation in science, math, and computers.
Any young person with an ear to the times knows the opportunities that lie in scientific and technical fields.
The decline noted in the National Science Board report shouldn't be hard to turn around.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society