An Imaginary Crisis

“Never let a crisis go to waste,” advised Rahm Emanuel when he served as President Obama’s chief of staff. And politicians can take advantage of a perceived crisis just as well as a real one.

Many Americans are convinced that the country faces a STEM crisis. That is, we don’t have enough teachers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, don’t have enough students taking degrees in those fields, and don’t have enough STEM workers to maintain the country’s leadership.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama pledged to create 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2020—a key part of his plan to “win the future.” In February of 2012, his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report stating that the nation needs one million new STEM workers.

Naturally, the White House was reacting to widespread beliefs. The groundwork for those beliefs was set in place by some influential reports done years earlier.

In 2005, the Business Roundtable released a report entitled “Tapping America’s Potential.” The big conclusion of the report: the country needed to double the number of STEM graduates within a decade (by 2015.)

Then in 2007, the National Research Council published a much heftier study bearing the ominous title “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” It too argued that the U.S. needed to increase its training of students in the STEM disciplines. Otherwise, we would suffer a shortage of American scientists and engineers and thus a “reduced ability to compete in a globalizing world.”

Both of those reports received serious criticism, but that did very little to damp down the widespread belief that the U.S. will suffer unless we manage to get more people through college with STEM degrees.

That belief is, however, starting to come under critical scrutiny.

Two years ago, the Pope Center’s Jay Schalin was one of the first to show that the rosy expectations for STEM graduates were not being fulfilled.

And now, in his book Falling Behind: Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Michael Teitelbaum (Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School) shows that the U.S. has been through at least five STEM-related cycles since World War II.  In each instance, alarms about a perceived shortage of STEM workers led to federal action to stimulate STEM research and education. But after the government’s stimulus ended, we were left with a surfeit of people with STEM degrees but no work commensurate with their training.

Far from “falling behind,” Teitelbaum shows that the U.S. has a glut of people with STEM education. After surveying the best research, he states that America “produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more.”

Nevertheless, many Americans instinctively believe that there is something special about science, engineering and technology. They drive progress. We might have too many lawyers or baristas or interior designers, but we can’t have too many STEM workers. And the interest groups that want more STEM education, research funding, and workers know how to capitalize on that belief to get politicians to enact the policies they want.

Apparently without knowing it, Teitelbaum (who isn’t an economist) has grasped how public choice theory works in the realm of education. Strong business and educational groups lobby for good-sounding policies that benefit them, frequently employing dubious arguments and misleading claims. The costs of those pro-STEM policies are dispersed among the public, and fall particularly hard on the unfortunate individuals who invest many years of their lives in pursuit of credentials that are apt to become almost worthless.

That is the essence of public choice: interest groups can obtain policies that benefit them from government, while the costs are spread out, and are mostly hidden.

Not only do we have many people with STEM credentials not working in jobs that call for their training, but it’s also true that a fairly large number of people who are working in STEM jobs don’t have the “right” degrees.

Teitelbaum doesn’t make that point, but Robert Charette, writing on the web site of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) does. Charette states, “Of the 7.6 million STEM workers counted by the Commerce Department, only 3.3 million possess STEM degrees.” At the same time, “about 15 million U.S. residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline, but three-fourths of them…work outside of STEM.”

Charette’s point suggests that the American labor force is more flexible than the alarmists would have us believe. The next time we hear someone declare that the country faces a crisis or a “Sputnik moment” or something similar that demands governmental action to prevent a shortage of STEM workers, we should be skeptical.  Think about the large number of people who already have STEM degrees who could be induced to leave their non-STEM jobs and about the fact that many people who don’t have STEM credentials can perform STEM jobs.

So, perhaps we don’t need any educational central planning. Teitelbaum makes a strong case that governmental efforts at “producing” the optimal number of STEM workers leads to a wasteful boom-and-bust cycle. His solution would be for the federal government to fund scientific research at a steady rate, but one of his “reality check” questions is, “Even if it would be desirable for science and engineering to have steady and predictable growth in federal support … wouldn’t the annual federal budget and appropriations cycle make this goal impossible?”

Yes, I think it would. Politics works on its own logic and cannot be constrained by even the most sensible of rules. Teitelbaum seems to conclude that the boom-and-bust cycle he has identified is going to continue so long as the government controls the purse strings. And because he assumes that government must play a role in funding scientific research, it seems that we’ll just have to live with inefficiency—inefficiency that imposes serious hardship on intelligent students who are lured into advanced STEM programs and will later find that their investment was for naught.

This isn’t the place for a debate over the need for government funding of science, but it is debatable. Readers might want to consult Terence Kealey’s The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, where the author makes a strong argument that we could and should leave the funding of scientific research to the free market.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Americans were great at science and technology long before government got involved, coming up with new ideas and using ideas developed elsewhere to brilliant effect. A laissez-faire approach toward scientific research, technology and the training of STEM workers would work. Moreover,  taking the federal government out of the equation would smooth or even eliminate the cyclical problem that Teitelbaum has so clearly identified.

The Pope Center has been arguing for years that, due to government policies, we have oversold higher education. It turns out, perhaps surprisingly, that we haven’t just oversold the soft and fluffy parts, but also the hard and demanding ones.