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Defense Watch 

It’s a Hobson’s Choice: Dollars For Defense or for Education? 

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By Sandra I. Erwin 

In today’s zero-sum budget world, every federal program is in a cutthroat fight for survival. Defense and education are no exception. As the largest slice of the government’s discretionary spending pie, defense competes for dollars with everything else, including education.

A soldiers-or-teachers choice, however, is bad national security policy. In fact, the future of the U.S. military and its global lead in high-tech weaponry depend on whether the nation makes greater investments in education.

Within the defense industry and military research-and-technology community, there are growing worries about a dwindling supply of U.S.-born graduates in math and science. They have seen a gradual slide in the availability of engineers who are qualified to work on classified projects, and cutting-edge military and space technology.

“We are very concerned about the shortage of U.S.-born engineers,” said Walter F. Jones, executive director of the Office of Naval Research. “Those are the only ones we can comfortably bring into our labs,” he said. “The defense industry also needs U.S. citizens.”

Pouring more funds into Pentagon science projects to hire more engineers, in this case, is not going to fix the problem. In fact, some defense contractors claim that, even in today’s high unemployment conditions, they have unfilled jobs that require engineering graduates that are also U.S. citizens.

Nobody yet knows how the coming budget battles will play out and how Congress will allocate $1.2 trillion in automatic spending “sequestration” cuts that are scheduled for January 2013. But industry STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) advocates warn that expected reductions in education budgets could be detrimental to U.S. defense technology.

“There are huge implications across the board,” said Edward M. Swallow, chairman of the STEM Workforce division of the National Defense Industrial Association.

Much of the current STEM-related federal funding comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided $5 billion for the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation funds. They are competitive grant programs that reward states for student achievement, and offer bonus points to schools that emphasize STEM education. But the ARRA coffers are about to be depleted.

“I don’t see any of those programs continuing to get funded in this new budget climate, especially if sequestration happens,” said Swallow.

He predicts that, in the absence of financial incentives, many states will lose interest in STEM education. As a result, he said, “We are going to have a significant drop off in the science and math skill sets that are graduating from high school.”

For the defense industry, the statistics are increasingly alarming. A pivotal data point is how many eighth-graders take algebra, Swallow said. Students who have taken eighth-grade algebra are the most likely to end up with an engineering or math-based college degree. This past year, fewer than 20 percent of American eighth-graders were taking algebra. “If that percentage continues to fall, which is entirely possible if the funding for new math and science teachers drops, those are the people that [we need in the future] to do the technical work that has to get done to protect our national security.”

The issue is not just national security but also economic competitiveness, said Swallow. The United States has fallen way behind the power curve in STEM education, according to the 2009 PISA test, or program for international student assessment, that measures the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, math and science literacy.

Of 60 participating countries, the United States ranked 18th in math literacy.

It should be noted that most of the nation’s education dollars come from the states, and not from the federal government. But during this economic recession, many states have relied on block grants from Washington to fund schools and teachers. Cutbacks to federal spending in the coming years could have trickle-down effects.

Swallow said these concerns are not unique to defense and aerospace industries. Tech guru and Microsoft founder Bill Gates for years has advocated greater support for STEM education, and has ponied up his own money for grants offered by his foundation.

A diminishing pool of skilled engineers has ripple consequences across the economy, Gates and others have warned.

History shows that, following every economic downturn since 1859, the United States was able to invent and manufacture its way out of the subsequent recessions, said Swallow. “In every case, something innovative was made and we made it better and cheaper,” he said. The exception was this decade, when financial engineering and borrowing were used to mask structural wounds in the economy. A dearth of technical and scientific knowhow only will exacerbate the problem, and STEM education is a key ingredient in fueling that innovation, he said. “We need more innovative thinkers. You can’t create them, but you get inspiration early in life through STEM education.”

The defense industry’s STEM group has been trying to build a larger coalition that can bring more visibility and clout to this issue, said Swallow. “There is a huge need for industry to start speaking with one voice about the need for STEM literacy.” Companies may have adequate work forces now, but the future is uncertain given the discouraging trends in U.S. STEM scores.

Some analysts have argued that the STEM work force problem is a myth and that it could be solved by offering more H1-B visas to foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities. That is not going to work, said Swallow. “We can’t hire them in aerospace and defense. Our contracts require U.S. citizens working in our plants.”

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