Cultivating America’s STEM Talent Must Begin at Home

Only with collective commitment, effort, and focus can the country educate and develop the “missing millions” needed to push the frontiers of knowledge, keep our nation safe, and power the innovation economy.

For over seven decades, US leadership in science and engineering (S&E) has fueled the nation’s economic prosperity and ensured its national security. The nation’s S&E ecosystem, built on federally funded fundamental research anchored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies, has catalyzed innovation and new industries, revolutionized health care, promoted peace, created the mobile digital world, and transformed nearly every aspect of daily life. Most recently, we have seen the fruits of this system in the tests, therapeutics, and vaccines we have relied on throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—lifesaving innovations made possible by investments in basic research carried out many years before.

While these successes demonstrate the remarkable legacy of US S&E achievement, urgent action is also needed to ensure that the United States stays at the forefront of innovation. The most fundamental component of any such vision must be ensuring a steady supply of highly trained and creative scientists and engineers to develop the innovations of tomorrow. Talent is the treasure on which America’s S&E enterprise and the nation’s prosperity, health, and security depend.

In an increasingly competitive world, we cannot take a supply of talent for granted. As the National Science Board (NSB) described in its Vision 2030 report published last year, the US share of global S&E leadership is dropping as other nations, notably China, ramp up their research and development investments in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum information systems, and hypersonics. At the same time, the growth of knowledge- and technology-intensive industries has increased worldwide demand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent, narrowing the pool of potential researchers and innovators who will work in the United States. If revolutionary scientific insights and technological innovations are to be made in America, then the scientists and engineers who imagine and create these insights and innovations must be developed and nurtured here in America too.

The urgent need to cultivate domestic talent

To meet this challenge, the Vision 2030 report embraces a two-pronged strategy of continuing to attract global talent and bolstering measures to produce domestic talent. The United States finds itself in a position not unlike the situation after the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 and the subsequent passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958. The NDEA contained provisions to ensure the development of domestic STEM talent in order to meet national security needs, given the sensitive nature of this work and the diminishing stream of scientifically trained immigrants at the time. As a direct consequence, many of the historic accomplishments that positioned the United States to be a global leader—in the space race and beyond—were developed by Americans hailing from every corner of our nation.

Talent is the treasure on which America’s S&E enterprise and the nation’s prosperity, health, and security depend.

The COVID-19 pandemic and other recent events have made the need to cultivate domestic talent, in particular, even more urgent. For students in rural areas or from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, the educational disruptions created by the pandemic have exacerbated long-standing disparities in access to quality STEM education. Many students are affected by the digital divide: a lack of reliable access to the internet and computer technology severely impedes learning. The pandemic has also compounded the challenges faced by some groups in the S&E enterprise including women, underrepresented minorities, those caring for dependents, and early-career students and researchers preparing to transition to the next stage. Society has reflected over the past year on the systemic racism and inequities—including in the S&E enterprise—that continue to limit the participation and the potential of all Americans. At the same time, data show that S&E jobs, including those requiring STEM skills without a college degree, pay more and have been more resilient during the pandemic-related economic downturn when compared to non-STEM jobs.

Taken together, these facts mean that a business-as-usual approach to developing STEM talent will not be sufficient to develop the diverse and inclusive S&E enterprise that America needs in order to maintain its global leadership.

Demand for people with STEM skills and expertise keeps growing, driven by international opportunities and competition and by disproportionate growth in the number of jobs at all levels requiring those skills. As of 2019, nearly 21 million US workers with at least a four-year degree—about 14% of the total US workforce—say that their job requires a bachelor’s degree level of STEM expertise. In addition, more than half of all STEM workers are part of the skilled technical workforce, with jobs that require STEM skills but not a four-year degree. Industry and the federal government both report that they are unable to find enough workers at all levels with the appropriate STEM knowledge and skills. This situation is likely to worsen as S&E work expands: by 2029, employment in STEM occupations is projected to grow by 8% compared with 3.7% growth in overall US employment, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Still other data reinforce the pressing state of STEM education and the workforce in America. The NSB routinely partners with the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), an independent federal statistical center housed within NSF, on its “Science & Engineering Indicators” report. The NCSES data illustrate that, even as STEM competencies become more essential in various lines of work, the United States is falling behind in educating its students in these fields. Despite continued emphasis on K–12 STEM education, US science and mathematics education at the elementary and secondary levels is mediocre relative to other nations. Since 2007, US student math performance has stagnated, while science performance is somewhat better and has improved between 2006 and 2018. Long-standing disparities persist in students’ science and math scores across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

Industry and the federal government both report that they are unable to find enough workers at all levels with the appropriate STEM knowledge and skills.

A recent study showed that many students start out as “gifted” and “high achievers,” but due to a lack of local investment in low-income school districts and access to resources like computers, after-school STEM programs, and mentors, these students become the “lost Einsteins.” The study’s researchers found that the innovation potential of the United States would increase four times over “if women, minorities, and children from lower-income families became inventors at the same rate as white men from high-income … families.” This striking finding shows both the ethical and economic urgency of providing these individuals with the resources, support, and opportunities necessary to join and contribute to the domestic STEM workforce.

In higher education, some progress has been made in diversifying the racial and ethnic composition of S&E degree recipients, reflecting population changes and growing rates of underrepresented groups who earn postsecondary degrees. But the attainment gap across racial and ethnic minorities remains significant. There is a similar story for the workforce. Despite some progress, women and racial and ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in the S&E workforce relative to their proportions in the US population—and will remain “missing millions” for years to come unless there are vast improvements in attracting and retaining these individuals (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Missing Millions: Faster Progress in Increasing Diversity Needed to Reduce Significant Talent Gap

Furthermore, STEM jobs and innovation activities currently are concentrated in certain geographic areas. For example, 20 metropolitan areas are home to about half of workers in S&E occupations, but only 38% of employment in all occupations. At the same time, 80% of business R&D, which has averaged $325 billion annually over the past 10 years, is performed in just 15 states that account for 58% of the population. These same 15 states account for about 78% of patents produced. The United States needs to ensure that all Americans have access to quality, higher-paying STEM jobs that also enjoy lower rates of unemployment.

A different path is available to us, one that will create greater STEM opportunity across the country. It begins with cultivating diverse domestic STEM talent in every part of the country, across all demographic groups, income levels, and educational levels.

How can the United States increase STEM skills and opportunities for all?

Congress and the Biden administration are considering historic levels of investment in the nation’s S&E enterprise. This discussion also presents an opportunity to make historic investments in fostering the nation’s STEM talent. Bipartisan support for new investment could simultaneously drive discovery and innovation and open doors for more Americans to pursue STEM education and careers. However, any new investment in the S&E enterprise must be accompanied by new and different approaches to attract and retain domestic talent and to address the interrelated elements of inclusivity, access, and affordability.

Inclusivity. Attracting and retaining the missing millions will require broad culture change to promote inclusivity, especially around STEM education. Culture change includes welcoming students from a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences, and demographic groups and recognizing that they come with varying levels of preparation, personal circumstances, and motivations for their interest in STEM. Providing wraparound services such as mentoring, transportation, childcare, and career counseling can help more students finish their degrees and training. In addition, a student’s STEM “spark” must be nurtured and encouraged, not subject to weeding out by classes that could disproportionately hinder underrepresented groups from pursuing STEM degrees.

A different path is available to us, one that will create greater STEM opportunity across the country.

As America’s premier STEM talent agency, NSF is looking internally and externally at how the agency’s policies, practices, and programs can help create a more inclusive culture in S&E. In 2018, NSF made clear that harassment will not be tolerated at grantee institutions and now requires these institutions to report findings of sexual harassment, or other kinds of harassment protected by federal civil rights laws, by personnel funded on NSF awards. In 2020, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan established an internal Racial Equity Task Force to ensure that the agency addresses racial inequities and identifies and removes barriers to opportunities both internally for NSF staff andfor the students and researchers NSF supports. The task force is examining its policies and procedures, including those related to grant proposal writing and development and the merit review process.

Furthermore, NSF’s FY 2022 budget request more than doubles funding for INCLUDES, NSF’s signature program aimed at accelerating the advancement of underrepresented populations in STEM by connecting individuals, alliances, pilot programs, federal agencies, educational institutions, and other entities in a network that serves as a model for intra-agency collaboration. The budget request also includes $20.5 million for the ADVANCE program, operating since 2001, to encourage institutions of higher education and the broader S&E community to enhance gender equity for faculty and academic administrators. As the COVID-19 pandemic has had varying impacts on individuals in the STEM research and education community, NSF plans to use a significant fraction of funds received from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act to help the groups most deeply affected.

In the first year of implementing Vision 2030, the NSB has focused in particular on the missing millions. The NSB issued a statement after the death of George Floyd, strongly calling for increased inclusion of African Americans in S&E at all levels, from the classroom to the research lab to the boardroom, with bolstered opportunities to participate, lead, and thrive. The NSB further committed to increased support for research at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and has encouraged NSF to build research capacity and technology commercialization at these institutions, which produce 30% of the nation’s Black students who later graduate from S&E doctoral programs. The board has hosted external panels to highlight data and illuminate insights on such topics as the Black experience in STEM, COVID-19 impacts on women in STEM, and what the S&E community can learn from Hispanic, tribal, and other minority-serving institutions about supporting diverse students. The NSB continues to hold itself accountable by acting and advocating for more inclusive environments and by partnering with NSF to strengthen research training pathways, reduce barriers, and increase participation.

Accessibility. To ensure that all K–12 students have access to a quality STEM education, the United States must address the persistent educational inequities that exist across dimensions of geography, race, and economic background. At the postsecondary level, it will likewise be important to make investments across the full range of institutions that cultivate STEM talent to ensure that the nation is reaching individuals of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds in all parts of the country.

NSF is looking internally and externally at how the agency’s policies, practices, and programs can help create a more inclusive culture in S&E.

NSF’s FY 2022 budget request reflects actions the agency is taking to ensure that more postsecondary students have opportunities to pursue STEM education and training. The proposed budget emphasizes artificial intelligence research, education and workforce development, and infrastructure activities at minority-serving institutions to increase accessibility for underrepresented populations. Increased funding for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program would support an additional 500 new fellows over the prior year, a 25% increase. Lastly, the proposed budget would establish a new NSF directorate to speed the translation of NSF-funded discovery to innovation. This would include building and expanding capacities for innovation around the country with Regional Innovation Accelerators that tackle use-inspired, solutions-oriented research across a range of technology areas.

Congress is also taking bold action to advance the agency’s ability to develop domestic STEM talent. The House National Science Foundation for the Future Act, for example, proposes establishing multidisciplinary Centers for Transformative Education Research and Translation. These centers would help realize NSB’s vision of furthering the broad adoption and use of NSF-funded STEM education research where it is most needed: in classrooms. The NSF for the Future Act also would support grants to advance research on teaching and learning at community colleges, which are critical access points for groups historically underrepresented in STEM and an important pathway into the STEM-capable workforce.

The Senate US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) includes a provision for a pilot program to build research and education capacity at emerging research institutions, which includes many minority-serving institutions, in partnership with research-intensive universities. Such partnerships not only promote the exchange of ideas and new innovations, but also diversify the ranks of the S&E workforce, necessary for a competitive US research ecosystem. Only about a third of underrepresented minority students attend research-intensive universities, so such a program would help realize NSB’s vision of engaging and retaining students from diverse institutions, races and ethnicities, and backgrounds in STEM. The USICA would also create a grants program to advance innovative approaches to support and sustain high-quality STEM teaching in rural and Indigenous schools, helping to ensure that individuals from all states have access to STEM careers. Such proposals seek to leverage NSF’s unique strengths to address a critical national need. Finally, the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide $65 billion for improving broadband infrastructure, which will increase access for the missing millions and help close the digital divide.

Such partnerships not only promote the exchange of ideas and new innovations, but also diversify the ranks of the S&E workforce, necessary for a competitive US research ecosystem.

Affordability. The Vision 2030 report highlights the need for postsecondary STEM education to be more affordable. Several state or federal initiatives and proposals aim to address financial barriers to higher education, such as the Tennessee Promise, which offers high school graduates the opportunity to attend a community or technical college for two years free of tuition and fees. Louisiana recently enacted the MJ Foster Promise Program, which will offer grants to pay for education for high-demand, high-paying careers beginning at the state’s community and technical colleges. At the federal level, making higher education more affordable for millions of Americans by providing two years of free community college, increasing the size of Pell grants, and expanding scholarships for future teachers could go a long way in attracting and retaining STEM students and building the workforce the nation needs.

Next steps

The NSB will continue to collect and communicate data on the US and global S&E landscape and convene and collaborate across the national S&E ecosystem. The NSB will continue to advocate for innovative policies that help postsecondary education institutions attract and retain diverse talent and for applying research-based findings to improve teaching and education outcomes. The Board will enhance its focus on community colleges and minority-serving institutions because they are critical pathways for individuals from many underrepresented groups into STEM fields and careers. And although K–12 education is not NSF’s chief area of focus, it is key to the development of STEM talent, and the board in its broader advisory role will continue to advocate for more, and more effective, STEM teaching in K–12 education as well as coordinated, concerted efforts at local, state, and national levels.

Making higher education more affordable for millions of Americans by providing two years of free community college, increasing the size of Pell grants, and expanding scholarships for future teachers could go a long way in attracting and retaining STEM students and building the workforce the nation needs.

As for the NSB, because one-third of the members finish their terms every two years, each presidential administration appoints some new members. A diverse and inclusive S&E enterprise requires diverse and inclusive leaders. To reflect these values in practice, we encourage the Biden administration to ensure that new NSB members named in 2022 include S&E leaders who reflect the diversity of research interests, employment sectors, educational institutions (including community colleges), and lived experiences, races and ethnicities, and backgrounds of all Americans.

Building a deeper domestic bench of STEM talent to meet the challenges of the future will require all levels of government, educational institutions, community and nonprofit organizations, and industry to step up their efforts. Institutional change requires identifying and changing the policies, processes, programs, and practices that create or perpetuate systemic barriers to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access and selecting a diverse cadre of leaders who value an environment with those attributes. As members and leaders of the US S&E community, we know it is incumbent upon all of us to hold ourselves, and each other, accountable for progress in developing the next generation of diverse STEM talent. We must all work together to continue the momentum, to set meaningful goals, to collect data that will allow the measurement of progress, and to be transparent by making the goals, data, and progress publicly available.

We challenge everyone in the US S&E enterprise to value diversity, equity, and inclusion in your own practice. Reward institutions for creating and sustaining environments for diversity to thrive. Appoint people from diverse populations and backgrounds to decision making positions, elevating role models for the next generation of America’s STEM talent. Be transparent as you set and work towards your goals. With this collective commitment, effort, and focus, the United States can educate and develop the STEM-capable workforce needed to push the frontiers of knowledge, keep our nation safe, and power the US innovation economy as envisioned in Vision 2030.