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MIT Better World

Zuber, who is MIT’s vice president for research and the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, presented these remarks in her role as the chair of the National Science Board (NSB), which acts as the governing body of the National Science Foundation and as nonpartisan advisors to the President and Congress on matters related to science and education.

In July 1945, Vannevar Bush, the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II and one of my predecessors at MIT, sent the White House a landmark report titled Science: The Endless Frontier. In that report, Bush outlined a vision for national investment in fundamental scientific research and the next generation of scientists. As Bush wrote in his letter of transmittal, “Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his tasks. The rewards of such exploration both for the nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a Nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.” [. . .] The result of Bush’s vision was the National Science Foundation (NSF). For nearly 70 years, NSF has catalyzed pioneering basic research in all fields of science and engineering. This research has opened new windows on our universe, made possible new industries, and given all Americans life-changing and life-saving technologies. [. . .]

Ensuring the long-term strength of the nation’s scientific workforce has always been a core component of NSF’s mission. Our workforce has been—and continues to be—the essence of American innovation, economic competitiveness, and national security. In 1950, Vannevar Bush wrote that “the responsibility for the creation of new scientific knowledge—and for most of its application—rests on that small body of men and women who understand the fundamental laws of nature and are skilled in the techniques of scientific research.” At that time, and for the next several decades, this meant scientists and engineers engaged in research and development in government, academic, or industry laboratories.

How we think about this workforce has evolved—and expanded—since NSF’s founding. While the education and training of scientists and engineers who perform fundamental research—our nation’s “discoverers”—remains at the heart of NSF’s mission, we now recognize that STEM capabilities are important to the entire US workforce. As we look towards the next 70 years, the NSB believes that for our nation to continue to thrive and lead in a globally competitive knowledge- and technology-intensive economy we must do more than create a “STEM workforce”; Congress, the Administration, business leaders, educators, and other decision makers must work together to create a STEM-capable US workforce.

Why is this so important to our nation’s future? Scientific and technological advances have transformed the workplace, especially in traditionally middle-class, blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing. These and many other jobs now demand higher levels of STEM knowledge and skill. In 2013, about 13.3 million US workers were employed in a STEM job. Yet in a survey of individuals with at least a four-year degree, including many working in sales, marketing, and management, an estimated 17.7 million reported that their job required at least a bachelor’s degree level of STEM expertise. And the number of non-STEM jobs requiring these skills is growing. Fostering a STEM-capable US workforce ensures that all Americans are prepared to meet evolving workplace demands. Likewise, it ensures that existing and new American businesses have the talent necessary to compete and win in a global economy.

Creating a STEM-capable US workforce requires a more expansive vision for STEM. This vision includes students and workers at all education levels, working on the farm, the factory floor, the laboratory, and everywhere in between using STEM capabilities to learn, adapt, install, debug, train, and maintain new processes or technologies. This vision includes women, traditionally underrepresented groups, and blue-collar workers who were hard hit by transformations in the domestic and global economy. This vision of a STEM-capable US workforce does not replace what Vannevar Bush originally envisioned. It builds on that foundation to more fully mobilize what he called the vigorous “pioneer spirit” within our nation and all of its people.