WASHINGTON -- Can it possibly be that the world's richest, most high-tech nation is producing and importing too many scientists, engineers and physicians, thus creating a new class of super-educated, embittered unemployables?
Those are barbarous questions for a country with a great university system and a hallowed tradition of learning as a pure good and reliable passage to satisfying work and personal security. The concept of too-many highly educated people is so unpalatable that for years it was dismissed by the academic establishment as a benighted absurdity. In fact, just a decade ago, warnings of an impending Ph.D. "shortfall" in science and engineering were sounded by the government's scorekeepers of higher learning.
But, lately, in a remarkable turnabout, the formerly unthinkable possibility of a surplus is acknowledged by academics and their professional societies and journals. And with thousands of foreign scientists and engineers arriving annually on "temporary" work visas, a bit of xenophobia is sprouting in the traditionally open American research community.
A long neglected issue
The academic chiefs ignored the glut issue for a long time, finding reassurance in dubious official statistics of low unemployment among their professional kin. But reality has intruded upon wishful thinking. Corporate America continues to shrink its domestic research activities, while assigning work to lower-cost foreign laboratories. Federal research spending has stopped growing and is slated to go into a steep decline. And rapidly expanding managed-care health systems are based on minimizing the use of physicians.
The evidence of surplus is so plain that even university administrators can see it. The headline of an article in Science magazine asks: "Is It Time to Begin Ph.D. Population Control?" A conference announcement from the Association of American Medical Colleges wonders: "Is the Nation Producing an Oversupply of Medical Researchers?" A commentator in The Scientist notes the production of "new graduates to fill non-existent jobs." A senior gastroenterologist, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, reports the shock of losing his job and finding no openings in that crowded specialty. In a foreign echo of the job problem confronting young researchers, the British New Scientist titles the U.K. version: "Stuck on the road to nowhere."
A creaking system
The existence of a serious Ph.D. job problem defies dispute. But with consensus lacking on what to do about it, the old system creaks on with much talk of the need for change, but little change.
Rejecting shrinkage of output as an unworkable solution, a study by the National Academy of Sciences says traditional Ph.D. programs should be retained but supplemented with course work to equip graduates for jobs in business and industry.
But the corporate-downsizing rage invites skepticism about the extent of the job potential there. In some instances where universities have reduced Ph.D. enrollments, faculty resistance has restored the original number of slots.
The effect of foreign scientists and engineers on the job supply is both a puzzle and an increasing irritant. Last year, according to one estimate, a record number arrived in the United States on temporary work visas. Mysteriously contending that it can't meet its needs with U.S. citizens, industry insists on keeping the doors open, while the big research universities are always on the lookout for foreign superstars. The net effect is a reduction in jobs available to U.S. citizens.
No solutions on the horizon
The paucity of solutions to the Ph.D. glut is surely one of the wonders of the great American university system. The common wisdom in the ivy-covered realm is that the problem will correct itself when students wise up to the grim job situation and stop coming.
Actually, many Americans stopped coming long ago, leaving the student ranks to foreigners, who now account for over half the Ph.D. enrollments in engineering and mathematics. In the old days, a large proportion of foreign graduates sunk roots in this country, but increasingly, they're returning to expanding economies at home.
The economy of science and engineering is poorly understood and marked by egregiously erroneous forecasts of surplus and shortage in times past. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that a major mess is shaping up, without anyone knowing what to do about it.
Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a Washington newsletter.