Dr. Robert C. Richardson: We have to face facts. We’ve got a serious scientific manpower problem, and it’s been developing since the 1970’s. We used to be third in the world, behind Japan and Finland, in the percentage of our students who became scientists and engineers. Now we’re 23rd. For 30 years, we’ve made do by importing a large portion of our scientists. Smart, motivated people from places like China and India studied and settled in the United States. Today, about half of our graduating engineers are foreign-born.

However, since 9/11 – really before then – policies were put into place discouraging these talented foreigners from coming. Thousands of students and visitors in technical fields have been delayed or prevented from entering the U.S. A lot of foreign scientists aren’t applying for visas. Some are refusing to come here for professional meetings. They complain of demeaning interviews at our consulates. They feel they are being asked, “Are you good enough to get into our country?” In the year 2000, we gave almost 300,000 temporary visas to people working and studying in scientific and technical areas; it’s down to half that today.

Science and math need to be made more interesting to our students. When you ask young people what they don’t like about science or math, they say it’s boring and hard. And while math and science are hard, they don’t have to be boring. Teachers often don’t communicate the fun of science. If you discover something no one has known before, that’s a fantastic experience. There is no high like it.

A second problem is that science as a profession isn’t particularly honored. When I graduated from high school in 1954, a much larger fraction of the population was interested in scientific careers and you didn’t have all these television cartoons making fun of “freaky” scientists.

The other thing is money. The glamorous degree these days is the M.B.A. So that’s what we hear: this is hard stuff to learn, it’s geeky, and you’re not likely to get rich doing it.

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