Investing in the Best and Brightest: Increased Fellowship Support for American Scientists and Engineers

Richard B. Freeman
headshot of Richard Freeman
Richard B. Freeman Ascherman Professor of Economics - Harvard University

December 1, 2006


There is widespread concern that the United States faces a problem in maintaining its position as the scientific and technological leader in the world and that loss of leadership threatens future economic well-being and national security. Business, science, and education groups have issued reports that highlight the value to the country of leadership in science and technology. Many call for new policies to increase the supply of scientific and engineering talent in the United States.

While the reports differ in emphasis, the basic message is uniform: the United States should spend more on research and development (R&D) and increase the number of young Americans choosing scientific and technological careers. In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative that concurred with these assessments: “For the U.S. to maintain its global economic leadership, we must ensure a continuous supply of highly trained mathematicians, scientists, engineers, technicians, and scientific support staff.”

In 1957, faced with the analogous challenge of Sputnik, the United States responded with increased R&D spending and by awarding large numbers of National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research and National Defense Education Act fellowships, which together induced a large number of young Americans to invest in science and engineering careers. In the early 1960s, the country gave about one thousand NSF graduate research fellowships per year. Forty-five years later, despite a more-than-threefold increase in the number of college students graduating in science and engineering and a global challenge from the spread of technology and higher education to the rest of the world, the United States still gives the same number of NSF fellowships. With so many more college students, current U.S. NSF fellowship policy gives less of an incentive for students to enter science and engineering than did policies in the earlier period.