Monday, March 01, 2010


By Richard Vedder

The title of this blog is inspired by Charles Sykes' great book that enraged the academic establishment, Prof Scam, a book that contributed to my desire to start writing about higher education issues. Sykes was not all right, but he was far more right than wrong, and I think the same can be said of what follows.

STEM, of course, stands for "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics." For the past decade, we have been told the following:

1. A large portion of the new jobs in American society will be ones for which an STEM discipline degree is indispensable.

2. America is producing pitifully small numbers of STEM discipline professionals, endangering our world competitiveness.

3. Accordingly, we must devote extra resources to encourage study in the STEM disciplines to deal with this shortage.

In some sense, this is a reprise of the post-Sputnik concerns of the late 1950s, when the alleged Soviet superiority in science was threatening our very national security. In retrospect, the fears of the late 1950s were somewhat exaggerated, is similar to the case today. In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences, sometimes one of the least scientific of all organizations it seems to me, issued a report arguing that our nation was imperiled because of the lack of commitment to the STEM disciplines (as the reports of manipulating data regarding global warming in recent months show, some scientists are not above using the mantle of science to push their personal agendas and/or promote their private wealth).

While serving on the Spellings Commission, I noted that newly made friends and solid persons like Jim Duderstadt and Chuck Vest from academia (former presidents of Michigan and M.I.T. respectively) and Nick Donofrio and Rick Stephens (from IBM and Boeing, respectively) kept the "help the STEM disciplines" rhetoric going, and it got reflected in the report.

However, in writing a new book with my sidekick and friend Andy Gillen (nearing completion), and in preparing for a now taped debate to be aired soon on PBS, the numbers kept telling me what I long suspected: the STEM shortage is mostly a STEM SCAM. I believe the following is true:

1. The relative pay of STEM professionals has not soared as would be expected if truly major shortages exist, and it is not uncommon for science graduates to have trouble getting a job in their field (personal note: I recently had a recent math graduate do some work involving our home heating system);

2. The attrition rate for new entrants into STEM programs in college is much higher than the already high rate for the general college population, and is horrific for minority groups, with five year graduation rates well below 25 percent for Hispanics, blacks and Native Americans;

3. The projected job growth of the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics shows large percentage growths for some STEM disciplines, but the absolute numeric growth is usually very small (e.g., the number of biomedical engineers is expected to grow by over 70 percent from 2008 to 2018, but that is less than 12,000--about 2 percent the projected numeric growth of, say, registered nurses).

I have nothing against the STEM disciplines, and indeed think a large portion of our truly best and brightest college graduates should study those disciplines. But I do think pressure from companies trying to keep their labor costs down, and from academic scientists who already collect large economic rents, should be revealed for what it really is: special interest pleading.

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