The U.S. is suffering an intellectual crisis and it is probably your fault.
One of the big problems facing the U.S. is a brain drain, stated Kristina Johnson, Undersecretary of Energy at the Department of Energy, via videoconferencing during a symposium at Google's San Francisco offices last night.
"Forty to 60 percent of the energy workforce will retire in four years," she said.
Executives at oil companies have noted the same ominous trends. In the U.S., enrollment in geosciences hit a peak of 35,000 students in 1982 but lately has meandered around the 5,000 level. The drop is somewhat easy to trace. Oil companies started engaging in mass layoffs in the early '80s, Three Mile Island put the brakes on nuclear power and the rise of the personal computer made IT a more promising field. As a result, energy experts tend to look a lot more like Dick Cheney than Sergey Brin. (I also think the decline also had something to do with the release of "Hungry Like the Wolf" from Duran Duran, but I stand alone.)
To some degree, things are looking up a bit. Right now, only 16 percent of high schoolers that will probably go onto college in the U.S. will pick scientific degrees and only 6 percent will go into engineering, she said. That's bad. However, the students that are choosing engineering and sciences are overwhelmingly interested in energy, said Dan Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley. Ten years ago, the introduction to energy class at UC Berkeley might have drawn 45 students a semester.
Now it gets around 300 and many classes are over-subscribed. MIT's Ernie Moniz, who also spoke, seconded Kammen's comments about interest in energy. 20 percent of the faculty at MIT participates on the school's sprawling Energy Initiative.
The Obama Administration is also expected, by some, to loosen up student visa and green card requirements. Many academics and executives, from the right and the left, criticized the restrictions imposed by the Bush Administration after Sept. 11th that have prevented foreign electrical engineers educated in the U.S. from getting jobs in the U.S. Brian Halla, the retiring chief of National Semiconductor, is particularly upset about the trend, and he has pictures of himself shaking hands with every Republican since Ulysses S. Grant in his office.