How Many Scientists Do We Need?

In last Thursday`s debate the President vowed twice that he will “hire another 100,000 new math and science teachers.”

Mitt Romney has said several times that he would “staple a green card” to the diploma of any foreign student earning an advanced degree at a U.S. university, so that the student can “enrich the nation through the jobs and technologies they will help create.”

 We may ─ I really have no idea ─ be short of math and science teachers, as the President implies.  Mitt Romney may or may not have been thinking of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) students when making his green card remarks.  It doesn`t sound as though he had Art History degrees in mind.

Both candidates do, though, seem to be tapping into a widespread impression that we are suffering a shortage of scientists and engineers.  Is this actually the case?

The October issue of Discover magazine ran an article by medicinal chemist Derek Lowe headlined “America Does Not Have a Scientist Shortage.”  I can`t find the full article on the internet, but here is the abstract:

 

The article discusses the number of scientists in the U.S. as of October 2012, focusing on debunking the myth that there is a shortage of young scientists and engineers, as well as concerns raised regarding the quality of the practicing scientists. The outsourcing of science and engineering jobs from the U.S. to overseas countries is also addressed, including job opportunities associated with the fine-chemical industry.

The issue of whether or not there is a shortage of some worker category ─ scientists, teachers, plumbers, short-order cooks ─ seems to be resolvable by very basic economics, as in: “There is no such thing as a shortage, only a clearing price.”  

If the wages on offer to engineers are going through the roof, we need more engineers.  Is this actually happening?  (It sure is for plumbers . . .)  But of course big sectors of the employment market are distorted by guild protection ─ think of teacher unions.

In somewhat related news, the current (October 2012) Notices of the American Mathematical Society includes a long article on the February PCAST (President`s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) report about the need to increase the numbers of college STEM majors.

Probably most mathematicians believe we do need to increase those numbers (Hey . . .), but they are giving the report a Bronx cheer anyway as PCAST apparently wants to do the thing by handing over college teaching of math to lectuers in other subjects.