The data on the national R&D enterprise that are gathered and published annually by the National Science Foundation are so dimensionally rich that the implications are actually difficult to absorb. In the SlideShare presentation below, I’ve taken a try at teasing out some observations that may be of interest to people interested in the innovation system. Some of the findings are obvious; some not. Your comments are welcome. [By the way, the “print/pdf” button will not print the SlideShare deck; instead, click on the “SlideShare” icon or link and download from there.]

The National Science Foundation has issued its latest report on graduate-student enrollment in science & engineering fields, taking a decade of data up through 2010. There are now about 560,000 graduate students enrolled in S&E fields at any one time, nationwide. Among these are the people who do most of the actual lab work on federally and industrially sponsored research conducted at our nation’s universities and colleges. They are the elite of the STEM workforce: those who aren’t bound for academic and educational careers may start companies or staff big corporate R&D centers.

As usual, the NSF statisticians have done an excellent job calling out the major trends. Over the decade, one sees faster overall enrollment growth in engineering fields than in science; extremely rapid growth in biomedical engineering; and above-average growth for both women and almost all non-white minorities. Though we’re cautioned not to make too much of the year-over-years, in the 2009/2010 comparison I think it’s possible to to see the effects of priorities in the federal research budget favoring physical sciences, earth sciences, and the range of engineering disciplines pertinent to the renewable-energy and advanced-manufacturing sectors. All that’s good news.

One other observation the report makes is that graduate enrollment grew at the same rate for U.S. citizens and permanent residents as for temporary visa holders. This is bad news: after a decade of growth in graduate enrollments, some 30% of all graduate students are still here on visas that virtually guarantee their return home when they graduate. Either that, or they can place themselves at the tender mercies of an employer willing to offer a “sponsored” visa like the H-1B, a boon that can be withheld at will and thus a virtual guarantee of wage suppression.

Our disgraceful failure to offer full-fledged permanent residency to foreign students who have earned graduate degrees here not only insults the foreign born and strengthens our potential economic rivals, but it really presents American-born students with a very unhelpful object lesson: that their reward for graduate study in the STEM disciplines is to see many of the available jobs filled at preference by the exploited, often as a way-station to their complete offshoring. If we want students to study the STEM disciplines through graduate school and put those skills to work here rather than in some other nation, let’s reward all who do so with the loyalty of a grateful society.

In my last post, I promised a look at why the term “graduated” makes little sense to me in the context of the National Science Foundation’s centers programs. I can adduce some theoretical arguments for my position, and I’ve also assembled a quick-and-dirty table (after the break) summarizing what I could find via superficial Web searching about the current status of centers that NSF regards as “graduated” from the ERC, I/U CRC, and MRSEC programs.

This empirical exploration revealed a bit more evidence for sustainability than I’d suspected, but on the whole I think it’s still unduly optimistic to believe that once federal funding stops, a university-based center will necessarily retain the essential characteristics of what was originally envisioned. That’s not to say the funding has been a failure, only that expectations for sustainability may be unduly high, or perhaps irrelevant.

Of course, it’s the ambition of every funder with public goals (whether federal or philanthropic) to leave behind an enduring, systemic change — if you like, to create a lasting institution focused on the particular set of issues of concern to the funder. However, when you think about what that would mean in the university context, it’s simply not realistic. Universities endure. Centers, typically, do not.

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