Yes, more STEM – but which STEM?

In the Fall 2011 Issues in Science and Technology, former Presidential science advisor Neal Lane has a thoughtful article on “Science Policy Tools: Time for an Update”. He takes on a number of policy issues in that piece. But there was one that especially jumped out at me, concerning STEM education:

The nation is producing more Ph.D.s in some fields than there are jobs, or at least jobs that graduates want and are being trained for, and the imbalance is likely to get worse. This may be especially true for biomedical research, but it is a problem for some other fields as well. The nation may need more scientists and engineers, even Ph.D.s, but not in all areas. There are policy options that could be employed, but they are not easy. Given the rapid pace of change in this age of technology, it is simply not possible to predict what the specific needs will be 20 years from now. The ability of the United States to continue to be a world leader in technological innovation will depend not only on having the necessary technical talent, homegrown and from abroad, but also being able to retrain and redirect that talent in response to new developments.

While we have given a lot of attention to the “original” STEM education activities (both K-12 and higher education), this issue of redeployment of scientific and technical personnel has not been raised. We seem to just assume that people with STEM skills won’t be displaced or need to re-focus their activities. Or maybe we assume that they just do this automatically.
Those may be bad assumptions. It is time to take a close look at the issue of life-long learning in the STEM fields and the process of redeployment of STEM talent. Maybe we need a new set of policies for mid-career STEM professionals – to be able to move in new directions. Dr. Lane has done us a service by raising the issue. Now the scientific community needs to follow up.

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