United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities Gone Astray

The Second Barrier: The Projected Shortfall in the U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce

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George Abbey and Neal Francis Lane
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

In our 2005 paper, we cited the projected shortfall in the science and engineering workforce in the United States as the second barrier adversely affecting the outlook for the U.S. space program. In 2006–2007, U.S. universities awarded 73,315 bachelor’s degrees in engineering, down 1.2 percent from the previous year, and 36,983 master’s degrees and 9,065 doctoral degrees. The total number of master’s degrees decreased for the second consecutive year, while the number of doctoral degrees increased substantially. Although most of the bachelor’s degrees went to Americans, 40.4 percent of the master’s degrees and 53.1 percent of the doctoral degrees were earned by students from other nations.13 These students, in growing numbers, are returning to their homelands in part because of the strict U.S. work permit rules. The number of engineers being produced by other nations is also increasing—particularly in China and India, where new engineering graduates already outnumber those in the United States.

In our earlier paper, we also noted the problem of the aging science and engineering workforce and worries that this demographic shift will leave the United States with an insufficient pool of skilled and experienced scientists and engineers. Approximately 58 percent of the aerospace workforce is over age 50. In 2008, approximately 27 percent of employed engineers became eligible for retirement, and during the next decade the number of employees with science and engineering degrees reaching traditional retirement age will triple.14 The children of this generation of workers have not chosen careers in science and engineering in the same numbers as their parents. The consolidations that occurred in the aerospace industry in the 1990s also led to layoffs that left the industry with a shortage of middle-age talent in the 30- to 40 year-old range. This age group represents those individuals having both the theoretical and practical knowledge to become program managers, both in industry and in the federal government in the next six to ten years. This shortage of talent could result in these senior positions being filled by younger, less-experienced workers.15

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that the number of engineering positions will increase by 160,000 between 2006 and 2016,16 an 11 percent increase that does not include the replacement of many retiring engineers. Lockheed Martin alone has indicated it will need 140,000 engineers over the next ten years just to replace retiring engineers. Yet, despite a growing demand for their skills, the number of engineers graduating from U.S. colleges is decreasing. According to the American Society for Engineering Education’s 2007 survey, undergraduate engineering degrees declined in 2007 for the first time since the 1990s, ending seven years of growth. The drop was small, 1.2 percent from the previous year.17 Engineering bachelor’s degrees, however, recovered in 2008 based upon the 2008 survey data.18

The trend may not, however, show continued growth for several years, as undergraduate engineering enrollment dropped in 2004 and 2005. The need for continued growth in the number of engineering graduates comes at a time of increasing technological competition from Asia and mounting domestic concerns about the growing need for carbon-free energy, protection of the environment, and the nation’s decaying infrastructure, to name only a few of the challenges that will require engineering solutions. The 2007 survey showed engineering master’s degrees with an even sharper drop than bachelor’s degrees in 2007, slipping 8.8 percent since the 2005 survey.19 In 2008 master’s degrees recovered nicely from their previous two year’ decline, posting a 5.4 percent increase in 2008. The 38,986 degrees conferred were almost an exact match of the total for 2006. At the master’s level, degrees to foreign nationals reached 41.7 percent. This is a 3 percent increase from last year’s mark, which was a ten-year low. The number of engineering Ph.D.s, by contrast, had been growing an average of 11 percent per year since 2004. The 2008 survey, however, showed doctoral degrees remained virtually unchanged from the 2007 survey. A substantial number of these Ph.D.s are being earned by foreign nationals. But the 2008 survey showed the share of doctoral degrees awarded to foreign nationals declined significantly for the first time in nine years. Having risen from 45.6 percent in 1999 to 61.6 percent in 2007, this year’s 58.3 percentage marks a clear change.

Considering the number of engineering graduates being produced by U.S. universities and the significant numbers of foreign nationals within that number, responding to the vacancies created by industry retirements will be a significant challenge. Looking to the future, the increasing technological competition from Asia and mounting domestic concerns about the growing need for carbon-free energy, protection of the environment, and the nation’s decaying infrastructure, to name only a few of the challenges that will require engineering solutions, all create the need to graduate more scientists and engineers from U.S. universities. The need for continued growth in the number of engineering and science graduates will require attracting more young stu dents to pursue careers in these fields. This will be difficult to do at a time when, along with the other problems that exist in the nation’s educational system, U.S. students are showing an alarmingly low interest and ability in science and math. A report released in March 2008 by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel found that the nation’s math teaching system is “broken and must be fixed” if the United States wants to maintain its competitive edge. The panel called for a comprehensive, systemic effort to strengthen math education, including improving teacher training and professional development.

The October 2004 NRC report Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future probably best defines the problem facing the nation.20 Identifying a number of concerns with the nation’s educational system, the analysis points out that less than one-third of U.S. students in the fourth and eighth grades performed at or above the “proficient” level in mathematics—“proficiency” being defined as the ability to exhibit competence with challenging subject matter. About one-third of the fourth graders and one-fifth of the eighth graders lacked the competence to perform basic mathematical computations. The adequacy of the teaching was identified as another area of concern. In 1999, 68 percent of U.S. eighth-grade students received instruction from a mathematics teacher who did not hold a degree or certification in mathematics. In 2000, 93 percent of students in grades 5–9 were taught physical science by a teacher lacking a major or certification in the physical sciences (chemistry, geology, general science, or physics).

The report goes on to comment on higher education in the United States, noting that the number of U.S. physics bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1956, the last graduating class before Sputnik, was almost double that in 2004. The report also presents comparative data from around the world. In South Korea, 38 percent of all undergraduates receive their degrees in the natural sciences or engineering. In France, the figure is 47 percent; in China, 50 percent; and in Singapore, 67 percent. The comparative figure for the United States is 15 percent.

The report also cites the percentages of U.S. degrees received by students from abroad: for example, 34 percent of the doctoral degrees in natural sciences (including the physical, biological, earth, ocean, and atmospheric sciences) and 56 percent of the engineering doctoral degrees in the United States are awarded to foreign nationals. In the U.S. science and technology workforce in 2000, 38 percent of the workers with doctoral degrees were foreign nationals.

Estimates vary as to the number of engineers, computer scientists, and information-technology students worldwide who obtain two-, three-, or four-year degrees. Rising above the Gathering Storm notes that in 2004, China graduated about 350,000 engineers, computer scientists, and information technologists with four-year degrees; the United States graduated about 140,000. China also graduated about 290,000 with three-year degrees in these same fields, while the United States graduated about 85,000 with two- or three-year degrees. From 2002 to 2005, both China and India doubled their production of three- and four-year degrees in these fields, while the U.S. production of engineers was stagnant and the rate of production of computer scientists and information technologists doubled. The numbers are large even if you were to cut them in half.21 Students throughout much of the world see careers in science and engineering as the path to a better future. By contrast, about one-third of U.S. students intending to major in science and engineering switch majors after their first year.

For the engineering and science students who do graduate from U.S. universities, aerospace engineering will likely not be their final destination. According to a study commissioned in 2007 by Aviation Week and Space Technology, today’s engineering graduates rank the aerospace and defense fields low—if not last—on their list of industries providing desirable employment, far behind high technology and professional services. Just 7 percent of students at fifteen top engineering schools interviewed for the study expected they would pursue a career in aerospace.22 The solutions to today’s pressing environmental and climate change issues and the need for the United States to pursue alternative energy sources will also create demands for more new young innovative scientists and engineers. Considering these needs and the impending retirements serves to heighten the competition for the young graduates and will contribute to a larger shortfall in the aerospace science and engineering workforce.

The National Science Board stated the overall dilemma in their Companion to Science and Engineering Indicators 2004:

If the trends identified in Indicators 2004 continue undeterred, three things will happen. The number of jobs in the U.S. economy that require science and engineering training will grow; the number of U.S. citizens prepared for those jobs will, at best, be level; and the availability of people from other countries who have science and engineering training will decline, either because of limits to entry imposed by U.S. national security restrictions or because of intense global competition for people with these skills. The United States has always depended on the inventiveness of its people in order to compete in the world marketplace. Now, preparation of the [science and engineering] workforce is essential for national competitiveness.23

The workforce situation is critical to the future well-being of the United States and, much like the present economic crisis, demands immediate attention. Even if action is taken today, significant time will be needed to change the present trends—an estimated ten to twenty years according to the National Science Board.24

Rising above the Gathering Storm includes specific recommendations aimed at improving the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and attracting more U.S. boys and girls to careers in science and engineering, including competitive merit-based scholarships for bachelor of science degrees for 10,000 new teachers, summer training programs for 250,000 teachers, a new master’s degree program, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate (AP/IB) training, and new AP/IB and pre-AP/IB science and mathematics courses.25 All of these recommendations are based on evidence acquired through many years of research on the effectiveness of such programs.

In the past, foreign students have come to the United States in large numbers to receive a quality higher education and, following graduation, have found faculty positions or employment with American companies in need of engineers and scientists. This has helped to alleviate the shortfall in the numbers of engineering and science students who are U.S. citizens. Immigration procedures implemented since September 11, 2001, however, have discouraged foreign students from applying to U.S. schools and have made it difficult for those foreign students who do graduate from U.S. universities to obtain employment in the United States. Overly restrictive export control regulations exacerbate the situation.

In his 2008 testimony to the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, Bill Gates said of the contributions of these foreign-born scientists and engineers: “U.S. innovation has always been based in part on foreign-born scientists and researchers. The fact that other countries’ smartest people have wanted to come here has been a huge advantage to us, and in a sense, we’re kind of throwing that away.” Gates went on to say, “I want to emphasize that the shortage of scientists and engineers is so acute that we must do both: reform our education system and reform our immigration policies. This is not an either-or proposition. If we do not do both, U.S. companies simply will not have the talent they need to innovate and compete.”26

Specifically, Gates wants to improve the quality of education in all schools, especially in science and math; attract many more U.S. citizens to careers in science and engineering; and lower barriers to allow talented young people to come to the United States to study and work.

Rising above the Gathering Storm proposes a number of specific immigration reforms designed to attract talent from overseas, including an automatic one-year visa extension for international students who receive doctorates or the equivalent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or other fields of national need at U.S. universities, to allow them time to seek employment. The report recommends that if U.S.-based employers offer these students jobs and if they pass a security screening test they should be provided automatic work permits and expedited residence status. If the students are unable to obtain employment within the one-year period, their visas would expire. The report also recommends the creation of a new skills-based, preferential immigration option for individuals with a doctorate-level education and science and engineering skills that would give them a priority in obtaining U.S. citizenship. In the interim, the report recommends that the number of H-1B visas be increased by 10,000 and that the additional visas be made available to industry to allow the hiring of science and engineering applicants with doctorates from U.S. universities.

The NRC report also proposes the revision of the current system of “deemed exports” or transfers of controlled information and technical data to non-citizens on U.S. soil. This information sharing is regulated as though an export controlled commodity were being sent to the foreign national’s country of residence or citizenship and thus requires the “deemed” exporter— whether a university, a private contractor, or an independent research institution—to obtain a license.

The proposed new system would provide international students and researchers engaged in fundamental research in the United States access to information and research equipment in U.S. industrial, academic, and national laboratories that is comparable to access provided to U.S. citizens and permanent residents engaged in similar research. Foreign students would not have access to information and facilities restricted under national-security regulations. The report recommends that all technology items (information and equipment) that are available for purchase on the overseas open market or that have manuals that are available in the public domain (libraries, the Internet, or from manufacturers) be removed from the deemed-exports technology list to facilitate the fundamental research work of international students and scholars.27

The NRC’s 2009 report Beyond ‘Fortress America’ also assails the current U.S. visa policy for inhibiting collaboration with foreign experts and the difficulties of absorbing foreign students into the workforce in the United States:

Current law has the perverse effect of permitting foreign students to enter the United States only if they can prove to a consular officer’s satisfaction that they will take what they learn home with them . . . anyone who admits that he or she might want to stay in the United States and contribute to this country’s technological competitiveness must—by law— be denied entry.28

The arguments and data in the NRC reports, bolstered by Bill Gates’s testimony to Congress, offer sensible recommendations for actions that, if taken, could reverse the trends and, in time, help to provide a solution to the projected shortfall in the U.S. science and engineering workforce. Failing to implement these recommendations not only will damage the ability of the United States to maintain a leadership role in space, but also will affect the nation’s overall ability to maintain a position of leadership in the world. Making real progress will not be easy. But the stakes are high and time is short.

Today, the concerns expressed in the reports of the NRC and National Science Board remain. In 2007, Congress passed the America COMPETES Act (Public Law 110-69), and President Bush signed it into law. The act authorized increases in the nation’s investment in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education programs at several agencies, as well as science and engineering research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) laboratories, and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. In the deliberations over the fiscal year (FY) 2008 budget, Congress was prepared to include substantial increases in the appropriations for research and education, but disagreements with the Bush White House over the bottom-line figure for discretionary spending resulted in a number of last-minute cuts, including all of the increases in research funding for these agencies.

However, with the election of President Obama and a Congress that is more in line with his agenda, reasons for optimism have increased. First, during his presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama made clear that science and education would be high priorities in his administration. Second, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5; the “stimulus bill”) was put together, it included large increases for the NSF, DOE’s Office of Science, NIST, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Education, and others. This funding will accelerate research and STEM activities as well as give states the resources to help retain K-12 teachers and will, in general, improve K-12 teaching and learning across the nation. While the “stimulus” funding is one-time money, the president’s budget requests for FY2009 and FY2010 also contain substantial increases for research and STEM education. The budget developments are highly encouraging, but pitfalls dot the landscape. If the agencies do not manage the stimulus funding well, Congress could push back on the president’s FY2010 budget request, leading to several years of disappointing budgets for federal research and STEM education.

Most Americans might not see how increasing research funding will improve STEM education, other than producing more Ph.D.s in science and engineering. The nation’s universities, recipients of much of this funding, need to accept a larger share of responsibility for the full education spectrum from K-12 onward, especially the need to improve the quality of teacher education in science and mathematics.

Making sustainable progress in addressing the large systemic problems that challenge the nation’s future will require leadership at the top. On April 27, 2009, President Obama addressed the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. The president noted:

We led the world in educational attainment, and as a consequence we led the world in economic growth. The G.I. Bill, for example, helped send a generation to college. But in this new economy, we’ve come to trail other nations in graduation rates, in educational achievement, and in the production of scientists and engineers.

That’s why my administration has set a goal that will greatly enhance our ability to compete for the high-wage, high-tech jobs of the future—and to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers. In the next decade—by 2020—America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That is a goal that we are going to set. And we’ve provided tax credits and grants to make a college education more affordable.29

The president’s message makes clear that he is serious about progressive change for America. His goal is attainable, but the whole nation will need to work together to make it a reality.


13. American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), ASEE Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges (Washington, D.C.: ASEE, 2007).

14. Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), Launching the 21st Century American Aerospace Workforce (Arlington, Va.: AIA, 2008), http://www.aia-aerospace.org/assets/report_workforce_1208.pdf.

15. Joseph C. Anselmo, “Baby Boomers Retirements Could Trigger R&D Crisis,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, February 4, 2007.

16. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008–09 edition (2008), http://www.bls.gov/OCO/.

17. ASEE Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges, 2007.

18. American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), ASEE Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges (Washington, D.C.: ASEE, 2008).

19. ASEE Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges, 2007.

20. National Research Council, Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2007).

21. Anselmo, “Baby Boomers Retirements Could Trigger R&D Crisis.”

22. Ibid.

23. National Science Board, “An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force: A Companion to Science and Engineering Indicators 2004,” NSB 04-07, January 2004.

24. Ibid.

25. National Research Council, Rising above the Gathering Storm.

26. House Committee, Competitiveness and Innovation.

27. National Research Council, Rising above the Gathering Storm.

28. National Research Council, Beyond ‘Fortress America.’

29. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the National Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting,” press release, April 27, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-at-the-National-Academy-of-Sciences-Annual-Meeting/.