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Pay scientists more; we'll have more of them

It's true that in a "knowledge economy" - one where new information and ideas increasingly form the basis of useful products and government programs - nations need an adequate science and engineering (S&E) work force. But it's emphatically not true, as much of the alarmist commentary on America's "competitiveness" implies, that the United States now faces crippling shortages in its technological elites.

Here are some facts:

+ In 2004, American colleges and universities awarded a record 233,492 undergraduate S&E degrees, reports the National Science Foundation. That was up 38 percent from 169,726 in 1990. Within that total, some fields have expanded rapidly. Computer science degrees have doubled since 1990 to 57,405. Other fields have stagnated. Engineering degrees, 64,675 in 2004, have been roughly the same since 1990.

+ Graduate S&E enrollments hit 327,352 in 2003, another record. They've jumped 22 percent since their recent low in 1998. Computer science graduate students have increased 60 percent from their low point in 1995, and engineering graduate students are up 27 percent since their low in 1998. It's true that for these higher degrees, especially doctorates, foreign-born students have represented a growing share of the total. But that's also changing, because - after years of declines - native-born Americans and permanent residents have increased 13 percent since 2000.

+ Judged realistically, China and India aren't yet outproducing the United States in engineers. Widely publicized figures have them graduating 600,000 and 350,000 engineers annually, from six to 10 times the U.S. level. But researchers at Duke University found the Chinese and Indian figures misleading. They include graduates with two- or three-year degrees - similar to "associate degrees" from U.S. community colleges. And the American figures excluded computer science graduates. Adjusted for these differences, the U.S. degrees jump to 222,335. Per million people, the United States graduates slightly more four-year engineers than China and three times as many as India. The U.S. leads are greater for lesser degrees.

Ever since Sputnik (1957) and the "missile gap" (1960), we've been warned that we're being overtaken technologically. Up to a point, that's inevitable. As countries modernize, they need more scientists and engineers.

But a country's capacity for scientific and commercial innovation does not correlate directly with its number of scientists and engineers. Hard work, imagination and business practices also matter. Here, the United States has some significant strengths: widespread ambition; an openness to new ideas, especially from the young; an acceptance of skilled immigrants; strong connections between universities and businesses; and well-funded venture capitalists.

In some ways, the worldwide "knowledge economy" is unthreatening. Knowledge is stateless. Two Americans invented the computer chip; now it's used everywhere. Still, we need to maintain a world-class S&E work force. We want to keep high-value economic activity here, and we need to ensure superior military technology.

Only about 4 percent of the U.S. work force consists of scientists and engineers. Having an adequate supply depends on what thousands - not millions - of smart college students decide every year to do with their lives. People choose a career partly because it suits their interests. This applies especially to science. But intellectual satisfaction goes only so far.

On average, American lawyers make 42 percent more than chemical engineers. Successful investment bankers do better. Does anyone wonder why some budding physicists switch to Wall Street?

Although we don't now have an S&E shortage, the retirement of baby boom scientists and engineers might cause one. There are some sensible ideas for avoiding this, including making it easier for foreign students who have earned advanced U.S. degrees to stay. But the main solution is obvious. "If we want more (scientists and engineers), we have to pay them better and give them better careers," argues Harvard economist Richard Freeman. The high-tech executives who wail about scarcities are part of the problem. They "would love to have more S&E workers at lower wages," he says.

Washington Post Writers Group