WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Poof! There goes the menace that wasn't there -- the ''shortfall'' in scientists and engineers. Bad and getting worse, many experts warned, it could cripple industry, defense and health care, unless more students were enticed into careers in these fields.
At the official government source of scientific manpower studies, the National Science Foundation, the shortfall was calculated at an alarming 675,000 between 1986 and 2010. The scarcity thesis was repeated so often, at congressional hearings and in the press, that it came to represent a dismaying failure of American education, priorities and values.
In reality, however, there is no shortage, there hasn't been for decades, and none is foreseeable. The real problem is a shortage of jobs in many fields of science and engineering, with worse to come.
Within professional circles, the shortage mirage has been dissipating for several years under attack by skeptics armed with reliable numbers about supply and demand. The final blow was delivered Wednesday when a congressional inquiry, chaired by Rep. Howard Wolpe, D-Mich., revealed the voodoo calculations that created the shortage panic.
Mr. Wolpe suggested that a shortage of scientists and engineers was conjured up and embraced by the Science Foundation and its political friends as a device for boosting appropriations. Retaining faith in the purity of science, politicians find this episode puzzling and even appalling. So do many at the foundation who rejected the scarcity warnings, but were overruled.
The shortfall thesis is attributed to the top policy researcher at the foundation, Peter House, who circulated his conclusions internally in a series of papers starting in the mid-1980s. Mr. House derived his conclusions from simple calculations focused on the 25 percent decline in the ''baby bust'' college-age population between 1986 and 2010. He then matched these numbers with the usually stable 4-5 percent of undergraduates who receive degrees in science and engineering. The outcome was a 'shortfall' of 675,000 degrees, as compared with what would have been produced in the absence of the college-age decline.
Mr. House insisted that he was projecting a ''shortfall,'' not a ''shortage,'' but the semantic distinction was often overlooked. Others protested that the calculations ignored demand, which, if high, can raise salaries and lure back many who have gone into other fields. The ''shortfall'' hypothesis also ignored immigration, the retiree pool and successful past experience in upgrading technicians to handle scientific and engineering tasks.
But the manpower crisis was off and running. Erich Block, then the director of the foundation, repeatedly warned of ''shortages'' and an inability to satisfy ''demand,'' telling the congressional Joint Economic Committee in 1987 that it was not clear that the American economy could meet its needs for scientists and engineers.
In 1991, Mr. House wrote that his manpower forecast ''became a factor in federal policy toward education of scientists and engineers. It was presented to congressional committees, the national academies and professional groups, and was requested by university administrators all over the country.'' He added that ''the shortfall figure, 675,000, was quoted and debated in countless speeches and magazine articles.'' There were disagreements, he conceded, ''but most analysts saw the projection as inherently reasonable.''
That was disputed by several analysts, who told the congressional hearing that their dissents were ignored or hushed up. Perhaps the most telling comment was given by Prof. Rustum Roy, a scientist at Pennsylvania State University, who declared that ''hype and exaggeration are endemic to the whole scientific system in this country.'' If scientists are in short supply, Professor Roy asked, why are young PhD.s being offered $18,000 a year? ''You can't hire a janitor for that.''
The tawdry episode of the shortage that wasn't there does not diminish the importance of science and engineering or the need for many well-trained people in these fields. But it does diminish the credibility of the science establishment. If public trust is lost, cherished public money could be next.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.