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Withering STEM

In recent years, the U.S. government has abruptly ended or curtailed numerous major technology programs. While those decisions were based on a wide range of reasons – from cost to utility to politics – they have had unintended consequences that gravely endanger America’s future as a technology leader and global superpower.

Just in the past few months, the government has opted to cancel further production of the Air Force F-22 and not begin R&D on a new bomber; to curtail development and production of the Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyer, cancel the Army’s 18-platform Future Combat System; and to cancel development of NASA’s Constellation manned space program.

Regardless of the reasons behind those decisions, each has further deteriorated America’s high tech industrial base, especially those sectors supporting military and aerospace technology.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, the number of major contractors working in those sectors dropped dramatically, largely through mergers and acquisitions, but also through the departure of companies that no longer could compete with the remaining giants or win enough of the dwindling number of available subcontracts.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 52 percent of aerospace jobs in the U.S. have vanished since hitting a peak of 1.3 million in 1989. Between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and February 2004 alone, 13 percent of the aerospace workforce lost their jobs. A survey of aerospace workers by the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry found 80 percent would not encourage their children to follow in their footsteps.

The Aerospace Commission recommended “the nation immediately reverse the decline in and promote the growth of a scientifically and technologically trained U.S. aerospace workforce”, adding “the breakdown of America’s intellectual and industrial capacity is a threat to national security and our capability to continue as a world leader.”

With fewer programs in development or production and fewer future opportunities outlined, fewer students have been attracted to educational tracks in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM courses. At the same time, the STEM-educated talent that took America to the moon, won the Cold War, developed the microchip, Internet, stealth technology, GPS and thousands of other technologies the public now takes for granted – and the military relies upon to maintain America’s role as a superpower – are retiring.

In a December 2008 special report on “Launching the 21st Century American Aerospace Workforce”, Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) president Marion Blakey wrote: “Our nation is not producing enough qualified workers to fill important jobs in U.S. aerospace companies – and the shortfall will increase as retirements grow in coming years. To maintain America’s leadership in the global aerospace marketplace in the 21st century, we must cultivate a highly skilled workforce of scientists, engineers and other technical specialists critical to our national security, our economy and the strength of our industrial base.”

In recent years, more than 60 percent of all engineering PhDs – and nearly half of all STEM-related doctorates – awarded by American universities have gone to foreign-born students. These are students who, upon graduation, increasingly are returning home to help build their native technology base. And those who do remain are not eligible for the most advanced government programs, which require classification clearances available only to U.S.-born citizens – roughly two-thirds of all aerospace and defense industry jobs open in 2009.

“Of nearly 4 million children who start pre-school in the United States each year, only about 25 percent of them go on to complete basic Algebra in junior high, only 9 percent declare a STEM major at the undergraduate level, only 4.5 percent actually graduate with a STEM-related degree and only 1.7 percent graduate with an engineering degree – and not all engineering degrees are applicable to aerospace,” Rick Stephens, Boeing senior vice president for Human Resources and Administration and chairman of AIA’s Workforce Steering Committee, told the House Science & Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education in February.

Even those who do graduate with STEM-related bachelor’s degrees or go on to graduate school rarely become part of the nation’s dwindling technology base.

“For every new PhD in engineering, America graduates one new Ph.D. in physical science, 18 new lawyers and 50 new MBAs,” the AIA report stated. “More than one-half of those holding bachelor of science degrees in engineering enter careers outside of engineering, including investment banking, law and business.”

STEM

Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commanding general, and Marilee Fitzgerald, DoDEA director, listen to students from W.W. Ashurst Elementary School’s third-grade STEM club explain their robotics projects, March 21, 2013. U.S. Army photo

STEM courses are among the most difficult any university has to offer – but previous generations made the effort because the opportunities for scientists and engineers were both numerous and exciting. Today, studies show there is little encouragement for youngsters – for reasons ranging from a majority of elementary and high school science and math teachers having neither the background nor the certification in those studies to negative characterizations in the media. A recent report shows only 10 percent of all TV and movie characters are scientists or engineers – and 70 percent of those are portrayed as evil.

Perhaps because of the nation’s success in rapidly creating the industries and workforce needed to build thousands of aircraft, tanks, and other military equipment during World War II, a large portion of the public – including lawmakers – apparently believe American willpower and genius will enable a repeat performance, should the need arise. But an F-22 fighter or B-2 bomber is almost as far removed from a P-51 or B-17 as a modern computer from an abacus.

Given all that, the good news – as reported in the National Science Foundation’s “Science and Engineering Indicators 2010” – shows Americans have a better understanding of and support for science and engineering than any other nation except China and South Korea, which are about on par. But both those nations, along with Japan and some others, are spending increasingly greater shares of their gross domestic products on technology research and development than the United States – and have far more students studying for STEM-related careers.

“The data begin to tell a worrisome story,” acknowledged Kei Koizumi, assistant director for federal R&D in the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. “U.S. dominance has eroded significantly.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...