Category Archives: S&T Personnel

** Book Review: Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent

Mike Teitelbaum has the credentials to settle this question once and for all: is there a critical shortage of American scientists and engineers as big business contends when they try to import more foreigners? Or is there a glut as underemployed post-docs believe when they try to find a real job?

First his chops. He is a highly respected demographer, whose career started with a Rhodes Scholarship, went on to senior jobs in the Congress, as vice president of the Sloan Foundation, and now as a researcher at Harvard. His many books have been well-received, and most recently the top journal in science,called Science oddly enough, recognized him as the person of the year in the field of science careers, probably because of this book. Bio

On a more humble level, in January 1995 your reviewer took a job as a legislative assistant in a Texas congressman’s office. As I was unpacking my briefcase, I was visited by some lobbyists wearing shiny boots. They were from Texas Instruments, and pointed with alarm at an impending crisis in engineering manpower, unless Congress provided more foreign workers via the H1B visa program. I was puzzled by this since I personally knew that jobs in engineering were not so easy to get after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, I was soon visited by another lobbyist, in scuffed loafers, who had lost his job at IBM when it brought in cheaper foreign engineers, and was taking advantage of his ample free time to report this to Members of Congress. Disclosure: I have worked at TI myself, and in 1995 I was an IEEE Congressional Fellow. The IEEE position was that the first guys were wrong, and the second guy was right. But we didn’t have the evidence to prove this. Now we do, thanks to this book.

Actually, it’s simple. Economics 101 says that if there was a shortage in the U.S., pay and working conditions for engineers and scientists would improve to attract more. This is not happening now, but it was just the situation when I graduated during the Cold War in 1960; defense contractors flew me first class all over the country to try to recruit me into a private office, but I foolishly went to MIT on an all-expenses-paid fellowship instead. Now an engineer is lucky to get a cubicle, working as an independent contractor without benefits and with zero job security. And the pitiful science post-docs don’t even get a cubicle, they just borrow a couple of square feet of a library table for their (own) laptop to try to do enough research to get a job.

R. D. Shelton

Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent Hardcover – March 30, 2014
by Michael S. Teitelbaum. available from

** Book Review: Is American Science in Decline?

Yu Xie and Alexandra Killewald have good news for Americans. They have concluded that American science is NOT in decline. Their glass is more than half full, even brimming. There’s just one hitch. They really only looked at a small part of American science: mainly its human resources.

Graduates can be considered to be one output of America’s science establishment, but there are actually a few others that might even be more important–like discoveries from research and innovations from development.   One can measure papers, patents, citations, prototypes and pilot plants, high-technology exports, and the investments that make these outputs possible. Those indicators of R&D are not nearly so favorable to the U.S. 

The authors’ try to broaden their scope by citing a 2008 RAND report that largely based its findings on indicators from many years earlier. which I pointed out at the time.  When your competitors’ indicators are increasing exponentially, it isn’t wise to use old data.  Most notably, China has come out of nowhere with a skyrocketing challenge to the U.S. in many indicators of science and technology, as well as in business. This competition for market share extends to the placement of scientific papers in a fairly fixed number of slots in journals, explaining why American growth rates in publications tanked in recent years as they report in Chapter 2.

Revealingly, the authors divide those writing in this domain into two camps. They use the pejorative term “alarmist” to characterize those who think that American science is in decline, while they have no comparable term for the critics of the alarmists, like themselves. My thesaurus draws a blank for an antonym, but I might suggest “pollyannas.”

To be fair, the authors have provided a competent analysis of the limited domain of science education and jobs for graduates, and they do also cover some surveys of Americans’ attitude toward science.  The NSF survey always reports that the public loves what it is doing.  I wonder about that since so many of the American public seem to have swallowed a lot of denial propaganda about climate change, evolution, vaccines, and the age of the Earth.

I agree with the authors that there is no great shortage of American scientists–rather the opposite.  Pay for scientists in the U.S.  has not risen, as it would if there was really a shortage. Producing more would simply result in more underemployed post-docs.  Systems engineers would recognize this as a classic problem.  You have to find the bottleneck resource that is limiting overall performance of a system, since efforts to improve other resources will be wasted.  While I understand that the authors want to look at the U.S. alone, learning from our competitors’ alternate universes can help with this identification.  My stats show that China is surging ahead of us because it has been increasing real R&D investment by over 15% per year compared to our 3% or less.  It takes money to do science today, and lots of it.  Thus the bottleneck resource in the American science enterprise is R&D funding, not human resources.  A book that is largely based on human resources can be a misleading guide to the question in its title.

An Alarmist

2010 Edition of NSF S&EI Shows US Decline

Every two years the NSF/SRS Division produces a wonderful collection of science and engineering indicators, mostly on the US, but with a lot of international comparisons.  Many analysts, including myself, use the data that they have compiled to draw additional conclusions.  I’ll post an example of this next.

For some years I have been pointing with alarm at the loss of US S&T leadership, based this data and other sources.  This year NSF is finally highlighting the same issue, after years of downplaying it.  The first sentence in their press release announcing the report says, “The state of the science and engineering (S&E) enterprise in America is strong, yet its lead is slipping…” which is attributed to Rolf Lehming.  In the next paragraph, Kei Kozumi of OSTP, says, “U.S. dominance has eroded significantly.”

The press release has links to the report and its data in .pdf  and .xls format.

R. D. Shelton

Maintaining U.S. Scientific Leadership: English and Immigrants are the Immediate Needs

This posting at Science Progress is ancient history in blogging terms. But wait! Why do the value of blogs have to be measured in days?  It’s true that my favorites, the Huffington Post and Wonkette, report on current events, but the blog medium is supposed to be an on-line journal of some lasting value.  Indeed, search engines find older posts even easier than new.  This short essay is just as true today as when it was written a couple of years ago.

Dr. R. O. Lempert of GWU has provided a thoughtful analysis of why the US is declining (relatively) in science, and he has some good ideas about how to deal with that decline. Others have also pointed out the critical need to maintain the flow of the immigrants who bolster our science and technology. I hadn’t previously thought, however, of the need to encourage the continued use of English as the language of science.

R. D. Shelton

China’s Emerging Technological Edge by Simon and Cao

The controversy over the influential “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report brought the issue of China’s science personnel to national attention.  The Academy’s “RAGS” report got the attention of the White House and Congress partly by pointing with alarm at huge and rapidly growing numbers of technical graduates in China.  Then it was found that some of the data used was suspect, undercutting some of the basis for the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act. 

Simon and Cao have perfomed a much needed service in compiling a defensible database and a comprehensive analysis of Chinese data on their human resources in scientific and technology (HRST). While their findings are much more nuanced than those in the RAGS report, they confirm that its general picture was true.  Chinese HRST is growing rapidly in quantity and quality, contributing to a challenge to Western science leadership generally. While rapid growth has its problems, as the authors show, huge investments in science education are paying quick dividends to China’s efforts to become an S&T superpower.  Unlike the West, there is no shortage in China of well-qualified students who want to train for science careers; with a population of 1.3 billion, China has more smart people than the US has people.

Of course, the book’s focus on HRST prevents detailed coverage of other factors contributing to China’s sharp advance in S&T.  Your reviewer believes that huge and rapidly increasing direct investments in R&D are even more important.

R. D. Shelton

PRC Passed US in S&E PhDs in 2006

I regret to report that another of our pessimistic forecasts in the Rio paper has come to pass.  According to the new book, China’s Emerging Technological Edge by Denis Simon and Cong Cao, the PRC produced more (26,396) doctorates in science and engineering than the US (with 22,316) in 2006, plus 4323 of those US grads were Chinese nationals.  The book cites (NSF 2007) as a source, but I can’t find this in the book; I’ll try to track it down at NSF.  I’m sure it is accurate, though, because when I plotted the curves through 2005, it was obvious that the Chinese one would soon cross the US one.

This is a spectacular achievement.  Again according to this book, China produced no PhDs until after the end of the Cultural Revolution.  It produced its first 13 in 1982, all in S&T.  I can’t calculate the compound growth rate here, but if you had bought a round lot of stock with this kind of growth in 1982, you would now be as rich as Bill Gates.

Of course this is not a natural economic phenomenon.  The CCP has adopted policies to funnel vast and rapidly increasing investments into this sector, just as they have in R&D.  And they are not wasting their money.  Outputs like PhDs in S&E and scientific papers in the world’s leading journals have quickly gone from nothing to the point where they have passed the US or soon will.

Congratulations to the winners, but the losers may rue the day when they fell behind.

 R. D. Shelton

China’s Emerging Technological Edge

This new Cambridge University Press book focuses on the rapid growth of S&T personnel in China–in quantity and quality. If you don’t have your reading glasses, its exact title is China’s Technological Edge: Assessing the Role of High-End Talent. Here’s a review by Adam Segel:

‘Exploiting a wide range of primary and secondary sources, Denis Fred Simon and Cong Cao have produced an extensively researched, finely argued, and methodologically sophisticated study of science and engineering talent in China. This book will be a critical resource for all those in business, academia, and the policy making community who wish to better understand China’s ability to develop and foster innovation.’ Adam Segal, Council on Foreign Relations.

Sounds interesting to me. The influential Rising Above the Gathering Storm report was criticised over its stats on Chinese HR, and I’ll bet these folks have more data.  I’ll have to surf over to Amazon and buy a copy.

R. D. Shelton