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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force


Measures, Size, and Growth of the U.S. S&E Labor Force

Employment Patterns

Global S&E Labor Force

Measures, Size, and Growth of the U.S. S&E Labor Force

Scientists Since Babylon

In the early 1960s, a prominent historian of science, Derek J. de Solla Price, examined the growth of science and the number of scientists over very long periods in history and summarized his findings in a book entitled Science Since Babylon (1961). Using a number of empirical measures (most over at least 300 years), Price found that science, and the number of scientists, tended to double about every 15 years, with measures of higher quality science and scientists tending to grow slower (doubling every 20 years) and measures of lower quality science and scientists tending to grow faster (every 10 years).

According to Price (1961), one implication of this long-term exponential growth is that "80 to 90% of all the scientists that ever lived are alive today." This insight follows from the likelihood that most of the scientists from the past 45 years (a period of three doublings) would still be alive. Price was interested in many implications of these growth patterns, but in particular, he was interested in the idea that this growth could not continue indefinitely and the number of scientists would reach "saturation." Price was concerned in 1961 that saturation had already begun.

How different are the growth rates in the number of scientists and engineers in recent periods from what Price estimated for past centuries? Table 3-A shows growth rates for some measurements of the S&E labor force in the United States and elsewhere in the world for a period of available data. Of these measures, the number of S&E doctorate holders in the United States labor force showed the lowest average annual growth of 2.4% (doubling in 31 years if this growth rate were to continue). The number of doctorate holders employed in S&E occupations in the United States showed a faster average annual growth of 3.8% (doubling in 20 years if continued). There are no global counts of individuals in S&E, but counts of "researchers" in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) grew at an average annual rate of 3.3% (doubling in 23 years if continued). Data on the population of scientists and engineers in most developing countries are very limited, but OECD data for researchers in China show a 10.8% average annual growth rate (doubling in 8 years if continued). All these numbers are broadly consistent with a continuation of growth in S&E labor exceeding the rate of growth in the general labor force.

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Employment Patterns

Projected Growth of Employment in S&E Occupations

Projections of employment growth are notoriously difficult to make, and the present economic environment makes them even more uncertain. Conceivably, the worldwide economic crisis will produce long-term changes in employment patterns and trends. The reader is cautioned that the assumptions underlying projections such as these, which rely on past empirical relationships, may no longer be valid.

The most recent BLS occupational projections, for the period 2006–16, suggest that total employment in occupations that NSF classifies as S&E will increase at more than double the overall growth rate for all occupations (figure 3-A ). These projections involve only the demand for strictly defined S&E occupations and do not include the wider range of jobs in which S&E degree holders often use their training.

S&E occupations are projected to grow by 21.4% between 2006 and 2016, while employment in all occupations is projected to grow 10.4% over the same period (table 3-B , appendix table 3-2 ).[4] Yet, there are challenges to making projections about the S&E workforce. Many corporate and government spending decisions on R&D are difficult or impossible to anticipate. In addition, R&D money increasingly crosses borders in search of the best place to have particular research performed. (The United States may be a net recipient of these R&D funds; see the discussion in chapter 4.) Finally, it may be difficult to anticipate new products and industries that may be created via the innovation processes that are most closely associated with scientists and engineers.

Approximately 64% of BLS's projected increase in S&E jobs is in computer and mathematical scientist occupations (table 3-B ). Apart from these occupations, the growth rates projected for physical scientists, life scientists, and social scientists are above those for all occupations. Engineering occupations, with projected growth of 10.6%, are growing at about the same rate as all jobs.

table 3-B also shows occupations that either contain significant numbers of S&E trained people or represent other career paths for those pursuing graduate training. Among these, postsecondary teacher or administrator, which includes all fields of instruction, is projected to grow faster than computer and mathematical occupations, from 1.8 million to 2.3 million workers over the decade between 2006 and 2016—an increase of 31.4%. In contrast, BLS projects computer programmers to increase by only 2.0%.

BLS also projects that job openings in NSF-identified S&E occupations over the 2006–16 period will represent a greater proportion of current employment than all other occupations—43.9% versus 33.7% (figure 3-B ). Job openings include both growth in total employment and openings caused by attrition.

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Patenting Activity of Scientists and Engineers

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) grants patents to inventions that are new, useful, and nonobvious. Thus, patenting is a limited but useful indicator of the inventive activity of scientists and engineers.

In its 2003 SESTAT surveys of the S&E workforce, NSF asked scientists and engineers to report on their recent patenting activities. Among those who had ever worked, 2.6% reported that from fall 1998 to fall 2003, they had been named as an inventor on a U.S. patent application (appendix table 3-6 ). This patent activity rate was 3.5% for those working in the business/industry sector, 1.7% in the education sector, and 0.9% in the government sector (appendix table 3-7 ).

By degree level, S&E doctorate holders have the highest patent activity rate (15.7%), while bachelor's degree holders in S&E-related fields have the lowest (0.7%) (figure 3-C ). However, there are far fewer doctoral-level scientists and engineers, so they account for only about a quarter of all survey respondents named on a U.S. patent application. Bachelor's and master's degree holders account for 41% and 31%, respectively, of all patenting activity reported in the survey (figure 3-D ).

USPTO does not grant all patent applications, and not all granted patents produce useful commercial products or processes. NSF estimates that in the 5-year period for which data were collected, U.S. scientists and engineers filed 1.8 million patent applications. USPTO granted some 1.0 million (although applicants may have applied for some of these at an earlier period). (See appendix table 3-6 through 3-8.)

Of those patents granted between 1998 and 2003, about 54% resulted in a commercialized product, process, or license during the same period. Scientists and engineers employed in the business/industry sector reported the highest commercialization success rate (58%), much higher than the education (43%) and government (13%) sectors. The overall commercialization rate varies by degree level, at 60%–65% for bachelor's and master's degree holders but 38% for doctorate holders (many of whom work in education, which has a low commercialization rate relative to other sectors).

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Global S&E Labor Force

High-Skill Migration to Japan and the UK

Recent debates and legislative changes in many developed (and sometimes less developed) countries have focused on visa programs for temporary high-skilled workers. The United Kingdom and Japan are just two examples of countries that have made temporary high-skilled migration important parts of national economic policies.

A 1989 revision of Japanese immigration laws made it easier for high-skilled workers to enter Japan with temporary visas, which allow employment and residence for an indefinite period (even though the same visa classes also apply to work visits that may last for only a few months). In 2005, 169,800 workers entered Japan in selected high-skilled temporary visa categories, compared with just over 30,000 in 1990 (figure 3-E ). For comparison purposes, this equals half the number of Japanese university graduates entering the labor force each year and is more than the number entering the United States in roughly similar categories (H-1B, L-1, TN, O-1, O-2).

The United Kingdom's programs for the entry of high-skilled workers continue to evolve in ways to encourage migration and are currently part of an overall point system. Under the United Kingdom's recent Highly Skilled Migrant Program, admissions grew from 1,197 in 2002 to 21,939 in 2006. An important note for these numbers is that high-skilled EU citizens enter the UK without needing this visa, so actual high-skilled migration to the UK is likely to be much larger. During these years, the number of U.S. citizens entering the UK as high-skilled migrants grew from 273 to a still modest 629 (Salt 2007).


[4] Although BLS labor force projections do a reasonable job of forecasting employment in many occupations (see Alpert and Auyer 2003), the mean absolute percentage error in the 1988 forecast of employment in detailed occupations in 2000 was 23.2%.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010