The Competition for Talent

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Science  08 Feb 2002:
Vol. 295, Issue 5557, pp. 972-973
DOI: 10.1126/science.295.5557.972

Economist Paul Romer's idea of how to increase the number of science and engineering graduates is to intervene in the market by financially rewarding universities that do so (News Focus, “Can universities be bribed to train more scientists?,” by J. Mervis, 21 Dec., p. 2466). Romer is being hailed for his “fresh insights,” yet has the federal government not been intervening—through fellowships, traineeships, and research assistantships tied to federal grants—in the production of scientists and engineers for more than 40 years (i.e., since Sputnik)? Given that there is still a problem in attracting U.S. students to science- and math-based disciplines and that programs such as Pell Grants and student loans have provided inadequate incentives to students to enroll and stay in these fields, it seems unlikely that the solution is simply more money.

Some pieces of the puzzle are mentioned by analysts cited in the article—poor K-12 preparation and rising costs, for example—but there are other pieces. Science and engineering (S&E) has always craved the best and brightest. The issue for these disciplines is “talent share” (1). The college-age population is projected to approach 80% women and minorities, combined, in the next 15 years (2), groups that are presently educationally underserved and historically neither recruited nor supported in S&E. They will represent the pool of talent for which all professions will compete. In addition, compared with areas such as medicine and law, science currently fares poorly in student retention, career prospects, lifetime earnings, and quality of student and professional life (3).

If we wish to increase the number of U.S. students trained in science- and math-based disciplines, then this changing demographic needs to be taken into consideration. More needs to be done than just funding an approach that has not been sufficiently successful. Particularly when federal funds are used, we should expect that students are prepared, enrolled, and supported through degree completion (4). University departments should be held accountable for increasing the S&E workforce. And universities should show how they add value in converting raw SAT-certified talent, as well as those with 2-year-college experience, into skilled, science-based professionals (5). No one would deny that the federal (and state) government should continue to play a large role in solving this problem, but it is time to dismiss the myth of free-market solutions.

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