U.S. faces shortage of scientists, panel reports

Immigration rules limit flow of skilled foreigners


The United States faces a major shortage of scientists because too few Americans are entering technical fields and because international competition is heating up for bright foreigners who in the past helped fill the gap, a federal panel warns.

"I fear irreversible damage can be done," Robert C. Richardson, a Nobel laureate on the panel, told a news conference in Washington yesterday, adding that he found the personnel trends "quite disturbing."

Warren M. Washington, chairman of the National Science Board, which released the report, said the United States was in "a long-distance race" to maintain its edge in human scientific resources.

"For many years, we have benefited from minimal competition in the global science and engineering labor market," he said. "But attractive and competitive alternatives are now expanding around the world."

The United States, he said, must work harder at developing its own scientific talent. But the report shows declining interest among young Americans in science careers.

The recruitment problem, the advisory body said in its report, grows out of the nation's economic success and the rising demand for employees trained in science and engineering. For decades, such jobs have grown faster than overall employment.

If left unchecked, the trends in technical employment will leave a dearth of scientists to meet the rising demand, the board said. At best, it added, the number of U.S. citizens qualified for science and engineering jobs could remain level.

But interest in such careers is falling compared with elsewhere. An accompanying report for 2004 shows the United States ranks 17th among nations surveyed in the share of its 18- to 24-year-olds who earn natural science and engineering degrees, behind Taiwan, South Korea, Ireland and Italy.

Skilled foreigners have increasingly filled the gap: the new report shows that 38 percent of all the nation's scientists and engineers with doctorates are now foreign-born.

But that inward flow is threatened, the board said, by new limits on the entry of highly educated foreigners into the country and rising global competition for their skills.

Visas granted to students, exchange visitors and other highly skilled foreigners dropped from 787,000 in 2001 to 625,000 last year. Visa applications have dropped as well.

At the same time, other countries, especially in Europe and Asia, have realized that science and technology are key to economic growth and prosperity.

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