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Women in the Chemical Workforce: A WORKSHOP REPORT TO THE CHEMICAL SCIENCES ROUNDTABLE
khakis, and T-shirts. They have no gray hair. It is absolutely amazing to see all these very rich young people who have thought of something that the rest of us are just catching on to.
Although the rapid pace of technological change can be unsettling, most people in the United States seem to appreciate the benefits of technology and have an insatiable appetite for more. Perhaps this is due in some part to the growing public belief that much of our current economic boom is being fueled by technology.
That belief is well founded. Studies indicate that as much as 50 percent of the economic growth of the United States over the past 50 years is due to technological innovations spurred by investments in R&D. Our most research-intensive industries—aerospace, chemicals, communications equipment, computers and office equipment, pharmaceuticals, scientific instruments, semiconductors, and software—have been growing at about twice the rate of the economy as a whole over the past two decades.
Even such a cautious observer as Alan Greenspan has acknowledged that investments in information technology have made today's low-inflation, high-employment economic boom possible. Only through the higher productivity generated by information technology can such growth be sustained.
On the surface, then, all would appear to be well for the future. Public support for science and technology appears to be strong, policy makers are crediting our investments in science and technology for the current economic prosperity, and even the Congress has put aside its usual partisan squabbling and agreed on the importance of science investments. So, should we have any concerns about the nation's future prosperity?
Last fall, the House Science Committee, on which I serve, heard testimony from Professor Scott Stern of MIT on a disturbing new study. Stern found, as have others before him, that our current economic prosperity is due in part to technological innovations spurred by past investments in science and technology. But looking at recent trends, Stern concluded that U.S. leadership in the future was by no means assured. As one sign of this, he pointed to the decline in the national talent pool: since the late 1980s, the nation's scientific and technical workforce has been declining as a share of the total workforce, and graduate school populations are flat or declining.
Moreover, a recent survey supported by the Sloan Foundation reports that there are now trends showing that the best and the brightest students are avoiding graduate science and engineering degree programs. Over the past 10 years, those taking the Graduate Record Exam intending to pursue science and engineering have declined by 16 percent. Among students scoring near the top—that is, over 700—the decline is even greater. The only bright spot is that high-scoring minority women are entering science and engineering in greater numbers.
A skilled workforce is the essential fuel to propel the economy and ensure a high quality of life. Many types of science and engineering jobs are among the fastest growing in the U.S. workforce. Now, however, we hear about shortages of highly skilled workers in some fields. Political pressure continues to grow for increases in visa quotas to allow more technically skilled foreign workers into the country.
The basic question is, Why are sufficient numbers of U.S. students not attracted to careers in science and engineering, particularly since the opportunities seem to be so great? I believe this is largely due to demographic trends and to the state of K-12 science education.
Historically, non-Hispanic white males have made up the predominant population group supplying U.S. scientists and engineers. According to Census Bureau projections, this segment of the workforce population will decline, from 37 percent in 1995 to 26 percent by 2050. These projections imply that this group will not provide the needed scientists and engineers, particularly since participation rates in these fields are also level or declining.
Clearly, it will be necessary to attract greater numbers of women and minorities to careers in science and engineering in order to avoid devastating consequences for the future. Some progress has been