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Editorial: STEM degrees key to U.S. economic independence

On this Fourth of July, as Americans contemplate what it means to be free, their future economic independence is quickly eroding as more and more scientists and engineers retire and fewer and fewer students get degrees in those fields to take their place.

If it sounds dire, that’s because it is. The number of retiring Air Force scientists and engineers has doubled in the last five years, and nearly 30 percent of its top senior scientists have left in the last two years.

Meanwhile, a 2010 National Academy of Sciences study projected a shortage of scientists and engineers starting as early as next year and cited the 5.5 percent decline in the number of science and engineering degrees being awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. That’s important because security considerations sharply limit how many of these key jobs can be filled by foreign nationals who come here to get these degrees at American universities.

Think about not just the important military but all the amazing science, medicine, energy and technology discoveries that have come out of our 17 national labs. Now imagine those laboratories – and their private-sector counterparts and partners – without sufficient human capital to keep running at optimal levels.

It would mean fewer, if any, developments on the level of a window coating that saves consumers billions annually (Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory). Or a bionic eye that converts data to a visual pattern for blind people (Los Alamos National Laboratory). The list of American innovations that save money and improve lives is extensive.


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But it requires Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics graduates. Former Lockheed Martin Corp. Chairman Norman R. Augustine co-chaired a 2012 National Academy of Sciences committee that reviewed the status of the STEM workforce. He points out “you don’t just turn the spigot on and say we’ll have more engineers.”

By many accounts the STEM shortage will be here next Independence Day. Educating and graduating more professionals in these fields is integral to the nation’s freedoms, not just military but economic as well.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.