Former vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., is thinking about introducing a bill that experts hope could lead to a $1 billion federal incentive program to encourage colleges to turn out more scientists and engineers, eSchool News has learned. The legislation, which might be introduced as early as mid-September, is likely to increase the pressure on K-12 education to emphasize technology studies.

At a July convention of congressional Democrats and technology gurus in San Francisco, corporate leaders, researchers, and lawmakers put their heads together to discuss the so-called “brain drain,” the deepening shortage of U.S. citizens competent in science, engineering, and other technical disciplines.

Stan Williams, chief of Hewlett-Packard’s top-secret nanotechnology laboratory, summed up the severity of the problem for the visitors from D.C.

“Everyone over the age of 45 in my lab was born in the United States. No one under the age of 45 in my lab is from the United States,” he said.

Economists at the conference speculated the shortage is the result of subpar U.S. investment in technology education when compared to other countries. Attendees discussed the potential problems that might arise from having non-U.S. citizens developing and maintaining the nation’s highest level technologies.

First might come an exodus of trained technicians. Foreign workers, when their visas expire, might take their experience, know-how, and top-secret intelligence back to their own country, leaving U.S. labs with a gap native workers are ill-equipped to fill. As the technology capabilities of other nations improve, another risk could arise. Foreign workers might no longer feel a need to look for jobs in the United States at all.

Paul Romer, an economist from Stanford University and an expert on the economics of the so-called New Economy, also addressed lawmakers in San Francisco.

“We don’t have the raw talent we need to be on the cutting edge,” Romer said, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Once the United States runs out of skilled high-tech workers, Romer explained, the nation will lose the innovative engine that has powered American success in technology thus far.

According to a white paper Romer released last year, scholars and policy makers believe the unprecedented growth of the U.S. economy and the rising standards of living in the last century were fueled by the nation’s rapid technological progress. They also believe “this rapid rate of technological change was fostered by a publicly supported system of education that provided the essential input into the process of discovery and innovation—a steady flow of people trained in scientific methods and in the state-of-the-art-area of their specialization,” he wrote.

“If this interpretation of our recent past is correct,” Romer explained, “it follows that any proposal for achieving an even higher trend rate of growth in the United States should take full account of the detailed structure of our current systems of higher education for natural scientists and engineers.”

In his white paper, Romer initially proposed that institutions of higher learning should receive $1 billion in incentives from the federal government—or about $10,000 for each science and engineering student that an institution graduates. Such a program would encourage colleges seeking federal incentives to turn to the nation’s high schools for tech-savvy students.

The Romer proposal also included a recommendation for additional federal dollars to fund 17,000 student fellowships, at $20,000 per student, for those seeking a science or engineering degree.

These sweeping recommendations have not found their way intact into current legislation, but a portion of Romer’s recommendations reportedly will be introduced in a bill now being crafted by Sen. Leiberman.

“We are in the process of working on legislation to help address the talent deficit in science and engineering,” according to Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein, who said the legislation would provide incentives to colleges graduating science and engineering majors.

“This [shortage] is a serious, long-term threat to our competitiveness, and this is a place where the government can make a difference,” he said. “We can provide some incentive to spur the higher education community to confront it.”

Specifics of the legislation are not available yet, Gerstein said, because the bill is still under development, but he acknowledged that Romer is helping lawmakers shape the bill.

Some K-12 educators have reservations about the direction of the proposed legislation, especially when it comes to investing federal dollars in incentives for colleges.

“I think [the money] should go to the kids, not the colleges,” said Mark Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville (Calif.) Joint Unified School District. “If you provide the money directly for student scholarships, you’ve got the same level of incentive.”

Liebman noted that such a scholarship plan probably would have a salutary effect on the preparation students receive in secondary schools.

“As a public school administrator, if I knew that lots of kids were going to get these scholarships, I’d want to prepare my kids with the tools they need to remain competitive in that environment,” said Liebman.

Sen. Lieberman’s office acknowledged the core problem will not be solved by legislation alone.

“We won’t be able to solve [the problem] from Washington, but we can encourage colleges and universities to be more aggressive in recruiting students for these critically important fields,” Gerstein said.

Sen. Lieberman is expected to introduce the federal funding bill in mid-September. “We’ll probably [hold] a press conference with the House and the Senate at that time,” Gerstein said.

Links:

Sen. Joseph Lieberman
http://www.senate.gov/~lieberman

Paul Romer white paper
http://www.stanford.edu/~promer/Mkt-forSE.pdf

Marysville (Calif.) Joint Unified School District
http://www.mjusd.k12.ca.us