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 June 2007 

Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.Education Trends Portend Trouble for Defense

June 2007

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.

The United States in recent decades has seen some troubling trends. One of the most critical is that our schools are producing fewer U.S.-born science and math graduates than countries such as China, Taiwan, South Korea, India and Mexico.

Consider this dismal statistic: According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 16th of 27 countries in college-completion rates.

Of every 100 9th graders, only 18 will graduate from college within six years of completing high school. Those rates have barely budged since the 1990s. Of the 18, even fewer will have technical degrees.

The consequences of these developments may not on the surface seem all that damaging given the nation’s prosperity and world-class higher education system. But there are reasons to worry about what a shrinking pool of U.S. citizens with technical degrees means, in the long term, for the federal government and, especially, for the Defense Department and its contractors.

Of most concern is that, over time, the majority of qualified science and engineering graduates will not be U.S. citizens and, therefore, will not be eligible for top-secret security clearances that are required to work on the nation’s most sensitive military and space programs.

Under the rubric of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), government and private organizations have launched initiatives to try to motivate U.S.-born students to pursue technical degrees.

The Defense Department is at the forefront of these efforts with its National Defense Education Program. The department employs nearly half of all federal physical scientists, mathematicians and engineers. Defense laboratories expect to lose 13,000 scientists and engineers by 2015, while at the same time, demand for scientists is projected to increase by 17 percent, and for engineers by 22 percent.

“There is a long-term downward trend in defense-relevant science and engineering degrees at all levels awarded to personnel who could qualify for the security clearances,” says William S. Rees, Jr., deputy undersecretary of defense for laboratories and basic sciences.

An April 2004 National Defense University report, titled “The Science and Engineering Workforce and National Security,” warns of the rapidly accelerating accumulation of intellectual capital — including an educated science and engineering workforce — in China, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, Rees points out. This emphasis is in direct contrast to declining education trends in the United States.

As part of a new effort called “National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowships,” the Defense Department is trying to engage the best clearable university faculty to pursue long-term, critical research. Grants of $600,000 during a five-year period are large enough to be attractive and produce quantifiable results, says Rees.

Pending congressional approval, a $5.4 million investment in fiscal year 2008 starts the program with the first nine selectees and increases gradually to $30 million annually by 2013. All awardees will carry security clearances and will work at the secret level.

The National Defense Education Program also funds college students in science and math fields, and is expected to soon introduce “pre-engineering modules” for middle school curricula that tie math, physical science and engineering to real-world applications.

The emphasis on “real-world applications” is key to the success of STEM initiatives. As was noted by a recent policy paper by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, “While a foundation in math and science is important, preparing learners in these areas alone will not address critical STEM workforce requirements. Students who have no exposure or experience with engineering have a very low probability of choosing engineering as a career or taking the courses needed to purse a career in engineering.”

At NDIA, we intend to support and advance STEM initiatives. The association recently established a National Security STEM Workforce Division, which is led by Ed Swallow of Northrop Grumman Corp.

The goal is to provide a forum to identify, develop or support initiatives to strengthen the workforce. This fall, we are planning to conduct a STEM “issues” forum, where we hope to see industry-wide participation.

The NDIA STEM Division intends to promote the application of math and science to practical challenges in both business and government. This is clearly important work that needs to be done now, before it’s too late to reverse the alarming downward course we are seeing in technical education.

I look forward to receiving input from our industry and government members.

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