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link to the published version: IEEE Computer, September, 2015

accesses since July 24, 2015

STEM Crazy

Hal Berghel

The mythical STEM Crisis has taken on a life of its own. As a society we need to debunk this myth before it adds another giant neoliberal heap on our national debt

“PORNOGRAPHY (noun) 3. depiction in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction. (Merriam-Webster 11th Online Dictionary.) That definition fits the STEM crisis perfectly. In fact it fits all mythical crises perfectly.


In his attack on the student left during the 1960’s, Edward Teller, hawkish cold warrior-physicist said that “…student demonstrations and radical administrations at MIT and Stanford had wiped out military R&D leaving the United States short of scientists ready and able to build the next generation of nuclear weapons.” (quoted in Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury Press, 2010, p. 38). Maybe. But during that same period those same students and administrations contributed to the advances of the computing industry that created our current quality of life. While we may have given up a few thousand neutron bombs, we gained the semiconductor industry, personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, fiber optics, Teflon, the iPad, and so much more.

Teller and fellow fear mongers used such arguments to justify overturning the National Intelligence Estimates that showed that the U.S. held superiority in weaponry over the Soviet Union. The effort culminated in Team B (Oreskes, p. 28ff, ….). Team B's mantra, which would resurrect itself again thirty years later when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attempted to explain why there were no WMD's found in Iraq, was derived from a C.S. Lewis argument form that Lewis used to explain friendship as substantive love: “The very lack of evidence is thus treated as evidence, the absence of smoke proves that the fire is very carefully hidden.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Harcourt Brace, 1960, p. 60,+the+absence+of+smoke+proves+that+the+fire+is+very+carefully+hidden ). By the second Gulf War and in the hands of Donald Rumsfeld, Lewis' argument form took on a more literal aphoristic quality as it shifted from substantive love to the politicization of substantified invisible weapons: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The fact that the CIA and other intelligence agencies could not find evidence of any unknown Soviet military threat meant that they were devilishly clever at concealment. Ironically, some of the champions of the Team B effort during the Gerald Ford administration (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, etc.) remained to support the Project for a New American Century in the 1990's, and later the George W. Bush administration's attack of Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course the mainstream media completely dropped the ball by not investigating the hysteria and illogic of the Team B and Bush-43 neoconservative mantra. Absence of evidence proves only one thing: there is an absence of evidence. While it doesn't entail evidence of absence, it is suggestive of the possibility.

History (and the mass media) are repeating themselves in the alleged STEM crisis. There is an absence of evidence that a STEM crisis exists. But potential beneficiaries have taken the Rumsfeldian view that we will be better off if we pretend that it does exist. As with the Gulf War, they are avoiding any serious investigative effort to get to the truth. The question whether the STEM crisis is just another example of an illogical argument being used to justify a questionable proposition that serves special interests is never considered.


Misguided rhetoric has been used to defend all manner of new STEM projects and programs. I regret to report that since I wrote about this last (STEM, Revisited, Computer, March, 2014, pp. 70-73) very little has changed in terms of government policy and industry recruiting efforts. My claim is not that STEM jobs aren't important or that STEM education isn't useful. My claim is very specific: there is no empirical evidence to support the thesis that there is a STEM crisis in education, or a STEM shortage in the workforce. We need to wrap our heads around that core fact.

The concept of using spin to influence public policy is as old as public policy itself. The first major use of spin to influence education in my generation was the space race. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, it concurrently set off an arms race, a space race, and an academic race – all focused on meeting Soviet capabilities in missile and space technology. The mass media missed the real scoop: the U.S. was far ahead of the Soviets in almost all categories which many critical observers knew at the time. Now we know that the US superiority was suspected as early as the Truman administration in the 1940s. The rational observers felt at the time that the threats claimed in NSC-68 ( ) were vastly inflated. NSC-68, though largely bogus, was resurrected out of desperation after the North Korean invasion of the South, and remained the core of US policy long after the notion of Soviet supremacy was disproved by the U-2 flights. It should be emphasized that the NSC-68 Red Scare was challenged at the time as spurious and alarmist for, as history has shown, exactly the right reasons.

There is a close parallel between the manufactured STEM crisis and the manufactured Red Scare: both were politically motivated and derived their support from special interests who sought to benefit from it. One author has actually attached the origin of the Red Scare to a specific date, March 5, 1948, when Army chief of intelligence, Gen. Stephen Chamberlin convinced General Lucius Clay, US Commander in Germany to send a scare letter to the White House that the Soviet Union intends to attack Western Europe. Chamberlin argued that a threat of imminent attack from the USSR would be necessary to “galvanize American public opinion to support increased defense expenditures.”(Christopher Simpson, Blowback, Collier Books, 1988) A mere ten years later, a similar argument was used by Elmer Hutchisson, the head of the American Institute of Physics, who saw the launch of Sputnik as “an almost unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of the present public questioning concerning the quality of science instruction in our schools” and “the opportunity of influencing public opinion greatly” to convince congress and President Eisenhower to pass the National Defense Education Act in 1958. (as quoted in Michael Teitelbaum, Falling Behind: Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 42).

Similarly, the STEM crisis seems to have had its origin in the technology industry interested in reduced labor costs (Teitelbaum; see also Charette - ).

The STEM crisis is produced by the same forces as other scare tactics that find their way into the political sphere. Teitelbaum specifically links the STEM crisis to four forces: employer needs, university needs, government granting agencies and immigration lawyers who exclusively focus on the supply side of the equation to the exclusion of the demand – which he argues is unwise, wasteful and ineffective ( ). A stronger position is that there are more powerful forces at work like business interests and lobbyists who are championing the shortage scare for purposes of labor arbitraging ( ). Failure to take this selfish and narrow minded interest into account will fail to account for the vigor behind the movement to add H-1B visas. Big and powerful government politicians find such lobbying is simply too tempting to resist. After all, who can be against educating and recruiting smart people? Labor economics issues are never raised.

The critique by Robert Charette in IEEE Spectrum is a well-referenced and cogent statement of the arguments against the STEM myth (Robert Charette, The STEM Crisis is a Myth” IEEE Spectrum, September, 2013; ). A review of the accompanying online comments shows that the majority of respondents, Spectrum readers and presumably IEEE members, approached the discussion from the point of view of free market and labor economics. No surprise there. But what is very surprising is that no one challenged Charette's thesis that the STEM crisis is a myth! And yet we continue to see the STEM shortage mantra repeated in all influential circles – including IEEE publications. What does it take to convince those who should know better that not only does this STEM emperor have no clothes, he's covered with lesions.

We add to the mix, a scholarly analysis by Salzman, Kuehn and Lowell (Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn and B. Lindsay Lowell, “Guestworkers in the high-skill U.S. labor market,” Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper No. 359, April 24, 2013 - ) that concludes “Our examination of the IT labor market, guestworker flows, and the STEM education pipeline finds consistent and clear trends suggesting that the United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations.”

These three sources, Teitelman, Charette and Salzman, et al are noteworthy not only because of their solid scholarship, but more importantly, because they provide extensive documentation in support of their conclusions. But lack of evidence doesn't diminish the ideological fever. So as we might predict, academic, government, and business interests must also weigh in – if not with scholarship, then hand-waving and polemic.


Before reading this section, take the “Testing for Neoliberal Posture” test in the sidebar. If your score is less than 30, skip this section.

A case in point is the recent report by the Coalition for Reform of Undergraduate STEM Education (Catherine L. Fry (ed.) Achieving Systemic Change – A Sourcebook for Advancing and Funding Undergraduate STEM Education (Assoc. of American College and Universities, October 30, 2014). Here's what this report has to say about the research: “ While some recent reports have called into question the so-called US “STEM crisis,” framing the discussion purely in terms of STEM majors or STEM jobs overlooks the need for a STEM-literate society…” (The references are to Charette and Salzman, et al with no recognition given to Teitelman.) This is some weapons-grade baroque logic. No one advocated for less lucidity in curricula – whether STEM, social sciences, art, or Esperanto for that matter The STEM myth criticism under review is epistemic not motivational.

Drawn out, the argument goes something like this.  P1: there are too few STEM graduates to satisfy the demands of business; P2:prima facie it is obvious that we should support policies that satisfy the demands of business (the neoliberal creed); C: therefore, we need to add more STEM graduates. 

But, as I've explained the available evidence indicates that P1 is false, hence the argument is unsound.  The unsoundness of the argument should be the starting point of the  public debate, not whether believing falsehoods can serve a greater corporate or educational good.  This report is nothing more than an illogical polemic and a black mark on the academic organizations that endorsed it.

Let's look at this from some other perspectives. In April, 2014 the General Accounting Office investigated the 209 federally-funded STEM projects and programs that spanned 13 agencies and represented over $3 billion in expenditures ( ). The GAO found that “ most agencies did not use outcomes measures in a way that is clearly reflected in their performance planning documents… [and] a majority of programs did not conduct comprehensive evaluations since our prior review in 2005 and the time of our survey in 2011 to assess effectiveness, and the evaluations GAO reviewed did not always align with program objectives.” (Ex. Summary)In fact, “…a majority of programs had not conducted comprehensive evaluations between 2005 and 2011 to assess effectiveness, and the evaluations we reviewed did not always align with program objectives.” (p. 12)

The 4 recommendations in January, 2012 report included “provide guidance on program evaluation” to determine whether metrics identify whether STEM programs have been successful, and “develop monitoring framework” to determine whether projects are satisfying intended goals. As of April, 2013 neither of these recommendations were followed. The GAO also faults these agencies for failure to systematically disseminate results “… in a fashion that facilitated knowledge sharing between both practitioners and researchers.” Given that the programs were neither monitored nor evaluated properly, that might be a good thing.

When it comes to hyperbole, the pièce de résistance comes from Tapping America's Potential, a publication of the Business Roundtable, (2005, ). Not surprisingly the prospective employers would like to see many more graduates in the labor pool. What is most remarkable is that this report still refers to the imaginary space and missile gap as a justification for the National Defense Education Act to “restore America's scientific pre-eminence.” Any scholar of the period would confirm that this “pre-eminence” only came to the US by default as a result of the destruction of Europe during World War II. To suggest that we had it, lost it, and got it back again in the fifteen years after the war is just silly.

It is incumbent on all scientists and engineers to get informed about these issues. Bu some estimates the federal government alone has spent $40 billion on STEM education programs and activities ( ) without having established any evidence of need. The point should be recognized that federal programs are essentially zero-sum, and so the operative question should not be whether the $40 billion provided anything of value, but whether the money could have been more effectively used elsewhere toward greater public benefit.


Over thirty years ago, Congress considered legislation to change the tax laws to provide economic incentives to computer manufacturers to donate computers to schools. These laws enabled the companies to write off up to 200% of their basis (i.e. cost) from their tax bill. I wrote at the time that this wasn't charity at all, but lucrative product dumping that enabled the computing industry to unload unneeded inventory (Hal Berghel, Tax Incentives for Computer Donors is a Bad Idea, Communications of the ACM, v. 27, no 4, March, 1984, pp. 188-194). I said at the time that if one really wanted to understand the point of the legislation, they needed to follow the money trail. The same holds true for the manufactured STEM crisis.

We may, of course, discount the business white papers and reports, where neither pretense of scholarship nor objectivity is to be found. The business interests are looking to increase profits and one way to do that is to enlarge the labor pool to drive down costs. Nothing surprising there.

And few take the government reports seriously. They are driven by policy, not common sense or fiscal responsibility. So if the White House or congress champions a cause, no matter how ill-conceived, there will be countless government white papers in support. The only partial exception comes from the GAO whose job is to ensure that government behavior holds shy of a level of outrageousness that might offend the senses and shake the soul. As a consequence, one frequent lament of the GAO is that agencies both under-assess and under-report their activities with the result that it is almost impossible to determine whether much of any enduring importance was accomplished. Government reports are more scholarly than those from the business community, but largely biased, uncritical and incurious.

That leaves the heavy lifting to academic research and scholarship. And if one takes the time to look, scholarship favors the thesis that the STEM crisis is a myth! That's what makes the Coalition for Reform of Undergraduate STEM Education report so disturbing. This report, though non-scholarly in itself, is endorsed by leaders of several scientific associations. One would expect higher standards from such distinguished individuals.

So why would an academic organization spin the facts? The answer is to be found by following the money. The most rigorous defense of the STEM crisis is the 2007 report from the National Academies ( Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, National Academies Press, 2007, ). The endorsers of this report are almost exclusively industry and academic leaders who will be the beneficiaries of federal largess. Industry wants the labor pool to increase, and academic administrators want increases in federal support of their institutions. These groups, along with the Coalition supporters, are economically incentivized to encourage federal funding in STEM. They are not incentivized to determine whether this is the best use of federal funds. This parochial attitude produces what Teitelbaum calls the alarm/boom/ bust cycles of federal programs ( ). Not only is this not surprising, it is predictable. The STEM crisis is a myth, but neo-liberals and self-serving special interests are not about to let any myth go to waste. If we follow the money we can see clearly that this is just another example of special interests attempt at wealth redistribution for the corporate interests. In a phrase, short-sighted capitalism at its optimal.


The mythical STEM crisis needs to be exposed for what it is – an attempt by special interests to attract federal funding or cheap labor via the H-1B visas on the pretense that there is a national emergency. I've followed the literature on this myth for several years and have yet to find a single scholarly article in support. None. Nada. Zip. The STEM crisis argument is as bogus as the claim that there is no global warming and smoking tobacco was harmless. Unfortunately for humanity, these myths are always exposed too late: and in all cases the environment, the uncritical, and the taxpayers are always the worse for wear.

Quality scholarship, as such and in general, is easily spotted by certain characteristics: virtual unlimited curiosity, minimal reliance on intuition, the quality of its references, objectivity, and the commitment to truth and aversion to polemic. The challenge for STEM crisis believers is to build support for their claims on the basis of such scholarship, rather than polemic and propaganda.



Answer all of the following questions and retain a running total based on the number of the answer:

  1. A Wall Street executive is asked to comment on the level of government regulation in his industry. The response will most likely be: (1) this regulation is necessary for the safety of the investors, (2) the regulation is necessary and on-balance healthy for the industry, (3) current regulation is excessive and hurts the industry.
  2. A president of a modern research university is asked to comment on the level of federal funding to research universities. The response will most likely be: (1) federal funding is excessive and unlikely to be in the long-term public interest, (2) federal funding initiatives are misguided and lack focus, (3) federal funding is insufficient to support the ever-expanding missions required of modern universities.
  3. The Secretary of Defense is asked to comment on the adequacy of the defense budget. The response will most likely be: (1) the current budget is rife with waste, (2) funding levels are more than adequate, (3) the current funding levels are dangerously low and likely to put the national security of the country at risk.
  4. The head of the National Science Foundation is asked to comment on the current NSF budget. The response will most likely be: (1) current federal support is consistent with the current needs of the scientific community, (2) our greatest challenge at the moment is to more efficiently use the budget we already have, (3) the demands on the scientific community have never been greater, and significantly greater resources are required if science is to satisfy these demands.
  5. The CEO of a major community hospital is asked to evaluate the current level of government support. The response will most likely be: (1) We can get by with what we have, (2) The community would be better served if this facility were closed and the funding directed to other, more efficient hospitals, (3) we cannot deliver the level of care expected of us by the community with the meager budget we have. It must be increased for the sake of community health.
  6. The President of the local sports franchise has threatened to move his team if it doesn’t get a new stadium soon. He is asked to comment on the share of the cost that he thinks should be borne by the franchise. The response will most likely be: (1) We should pay for all of it since we’ll be profiting from it, (2) We will share the costs of the stadium with the city 50-50 and in return will make the city a co-owner of the franchise, (3) The team shouldn’t have to pay anything - this is the city’s investment in their future and the fans should be grateful to have a great franchise such as ours.
  7. The president of the local Chamber of Commerce is asked where the funds will come from to host the upcoming invitation-only business roundtable.  The response will most likely be: (1) I'll cover the expenses from donations to a barbeque I'm hosting in my mother's back yard, (2) The local Hyatt will cover all the expenses out of love, (3) It won't cost the taxpayer anything.  We're going to use the capital improvement fund to cover the cost of the banquet and the Sting concert immediately thereafter.  It's all about jobs! 
  8. The Chairman of the Board of the regional electric company is asked to comment on how net metering pricing should work for solar rooftop customers. The response will most likely be: (1) power companies should buy all wholesale power at the same price regardless of the source. (2) Net metering is essential for the protection of the environment. (3) We’re all for net metering a long as the customer pays a connection fee that covers our operating costs.
  9. A University president has been asked to comment on the indirect rate (the overhead that is added to the direct costs of every grant – usually around 50%) that is paid to the university by funding agencies. The response will most likely be: (1) It’s way more than we need – we don’t spend anywhere near 50% of the direct expenses to keep the offices and labs open, (2) I think it’s fair, it covers our infrastructure expenses and gives the administration significant discretionary income (3) the current indirect rate is way too low. It doesn’t begin to cover all of the in-kind and infrastructure expenses that the university provides the researcher.
  10. A prisoner has been asked to comment on his involvement in the robbery for which he has been arrested but for which there is only weak, circumstantial evidence. The response will most likely be:: (1) I realize the error of my ways. I did it, (2) No need to Mirandize me, just tell me what you want to know. (3) I didn’t do it and I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Add up your scores. If your total is 30, you’re a neoliberal rockstar. If your score is less than 30, you’re delusional or hopelessly naïve - look for a career in politics or public relations.