Help Wanted

The head of NASA forecasts a bleak future for American science

In 1999 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration suffered two setbacks in its exploration of Mars. In September the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter, designed to gather information about terrain and climate, was lost in space. In December the $165 million Mars Polar Lander, the Orbiter's sister craft, apparently crashed into the planet's surface. NASA does not have a legacy of failure, even in its ambitious Mars program (the Mars Global Surveyor, a probe launched in 1996, and the Mars Pathfinder, which landed in 1997, were both resounding successes). As the administrator of NASA, I was eager to investigate why these accidents happened. I was disturbed by what I found.

As always, we had very dedicated, intelligent people at NASA. But we did not have enough of them, nor did they have all the experience they needed. Only 700 or so scientists and engineers worked on the two 1999 Mars missions—about the same number that had worked on the Pathfinder mission alone. Many of our veteran scientists and engineers had retired and weren't available to train or mentor the few young people we had hired to replace them. And the situation will get worse: currently NASA has twice as many employees over sixty as under thirty.

These problems, of course, are not confined to NASA; they reflect nationwide trends. In the years to come members of the science and engineering work force, along with other members of the national work force, will be retiring at an ever increasing rate. Our most experienced workers will be leaving at a time when our need for them is greatest. The United States is expected to create about two million additional jobs in science and engineering by the end of the decade—an increase in demand of more than 50 percent. If we do not graduate enough students in those fields during that time, the country will be faced with a serious deficit of scientists and engineers.

The country will also be faced with an evaporating dominance. In the 1960s and 1970s the United States was unequaled in aerospace and technology. In the 1980s and 1990s the rest of the world began to close the gap. Now NASA engineers, traveling throughout the world, have concluded that the technical infrastructure supporting the European aircraft industry is, for the first time, equal to ours. More important, Europe is climbing upward while we are sliding downward. In the mid-1980s the United States received 70 percent of all new orders for commercial aircraft. Today it receives 55 percent.

American students, meanwhile, seem to be losing interest in technical careers—from 1983 to 1997 enrollment in undergraduate engineering programs decreased by 19 percent. Much of the problem is simply demographic: from 1980 to 2000 the U.S. college-age population dropped by more than 21 percent, from 21.6 million to 17 million. But although that population will increase in the next decade, we must still worry about the shifting focus of students. In 1986 college students earned about 24,000 degrees in electrical engineering and about 5,000 degrees in parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness. In 1996, they earned nearly 14,000 degrees in each of these fields. Only two years later 4,000 more students were earning degrees in parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness than in electrical engineering.

My concern is not that we have too much leisure in this country but that we are losing talented young people from an industry critical to our global competitiveness and national defense. Right now we are relatively secure. But what's going to happen in the century to come? Will we lead a recreation program for the world?