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Photo of Dr. Subra Suresh

Dr. Subra Suresh
National Science Foundation

Jules LaPidus Luncheon Lecture
at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools
JW Marriott Hotel
Washington, DC

December 3, 2010

"Graduate Education and Workforce Development for the Future"

Photo by Sandy Schaeffer

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Title slide: Graduate Education & Workforce Development for the Future

Slide words: 
Jules LaPidus Luncheon Lecture at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools
Subra Suresh
National Science Foundation
December 3, 2010
12-1:30 PM
JW Marriott Hotel
Ballroom Level
Salons III & IV
Washington, DC

Slide image: National Science Foundation logo

Good afternoon. Thank you, President Debra Stewart, for that very warm and generous introduction. I am really delighted to be here. As Debra mentioned, I've been in this job about seven weeks now [audience laughs], and I have been reminded both by my new colleagues at NSF and by my colleagues outside of NSF that the honeymoon is long over. [audience laughs]

So, it's in that spirit that I started this job. And from the time of my possibility of joining NSF to the time of when I was going through the Senate confirmation process, I had a lot of time to think about NSF issues and also had the benefit of contacting and talking to a number of people around the country. Many of you are in this room today. Thank you for your input. I appreciate that.

I am really privileged by the opportunity to speak at this lecture that honors your former president, Jules LaPidus. And, I look forward to working with the graduate schools community in my new role at NSF.

NSF and the graduate schools are long-term partners in science and engineering. Working with CGS and its individual schools, our collective efforts are critical to the nation's success in a growing field of competitors. I think we can agree that as a team, NSF and the CGS community comprise a substantial force in fueling the U.S. " innovation engine."

In so doing, we must be continuously agile, alert and adaptable to grasp global opportunities and to meet global challenges. We must build a STEM workforce of greater diversity and size. The up-and-coming contenders in STEM-based innovation will be talented, well-trained and tenacious. And we also know that the 21st century will be the century of science and technology and will be knowledge-based. And it doesn't matter whether you are a scientist or an engineer, as a citizen of the world, no matter what your field is, you have to be science and technology savvy to be competitive.

As collaborators, we have paved a productive and durable partnership for success. NSF's support of visionary fundamental research ideas, and the STEM education talent that allows pursuit of those ideas, makes for a winning team between NSF and CGS.

NSF's scientist-rotators form an essential link in this process. About half of NSF's program officers are university faculty on loan or leave, doing temporary duty with NSF. We benefit greatly from faculty who help to identify the most promising research areas for breakthroughs, for NSF, for the universities, for the country, and for the world. They bring energy and creativity to keep us vital, nimble, and focused on future discovery. And through them, NSF has a very critical link to the graduate student population at universities. So we indirectly tap into the energy, the creativity, the wisdom and the potential of graduate students through our rotator faculty.

This rotator system, or the IPA system, is a wonderful process whereby NSF is the beneficiary of the energy of these new staff circulating through NSF -- all 12 floors -- every one to four years. We fully recognize the administrative challenge posed by the flip side of this benefit, which is the lack of continuity. NSF works to balance its programs such that there is a healthy percentage of permanent staff working side-by-side with the rotators.

Our partnership is further enriched by the tens of thousands of graduate faculty who participate in merit review of submitted proposals. NSF's merit review process is admired all over the world, and we have had 60 years of experience to develop, implement, fine tune and continually refine this process. Making time to serve on review panels is a public service to science and the nation's engine of innovation, so I very much thank the graduate school community for helping us do our job.

The resulting invention, ideas, knowledge infrastructure, and STEM human capital move us down a path of discoveries that translate into commercially viable marketplace products and services, as well. Even though NSF is very much upstream, we can view a lot of NSF's impact downstream. Let me give, just one anecdotal data point. It's a real data point, but it's just one small example. NSF funded two young graduate students at Stanford University to do purely mathematical research, research that, at the time, had no known practical application or very little practical application. One of them is Sergey Brin, and you know the name of the other [Larry Page of GOOGLE]. And NSF has had an impact downstream as well; this is just one example.

When we consider graduate education and workforce development, we need to do it proactively to shape our future, not in response or reaction to others. Others look to us for leadership. One of the most critical steps for us right now is to revitalize our nation's STEM pipeline. We have major misalignments of gender and ethnic/racial demographics in the pipeline relative to the population at large. Overcoming these weaknesses will take time and aggressive enlistment and then patience and continuous nurturing. What is at stake is nothing less than our future scientific and economic vitality and leadership as well as national security. Indeed, the 21st century global economy will be knowledge-based, and it will require a scientist and an engineer, actually, for that matter, any citizen of the world, to remain engaged in life-long learning, not just education or graduate education, but continuous education throughout their career and even into retirement.

Slide title: Number of NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Slide words: GRFP TOTALS Accepted [Graduate Research Fellowship Program  (GRFP)]

Slide image: Line graph showing the total number of Graduate Research Fellowships accepted from 1952 to 2010. 
Some of the totals follow:
1952: 533
1960: 520
1966: 1166
1970: 986
1980: 466
1990: 872
2000: 741
2006: 900
2010: 1998

Image credit: National Science Foundation

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NSF's long-standing Graduate Research Fellowship program has been an integral part of our leadership and commitment to keep the STEM education pipeline flowing. NSF has funded well over 40,000 Graduate Research Fellows since the program's inception in 1952. So the first slide shows from 1952 until this year. In 2010, NSF has funded 2,000 accepted fellowships. In fact, we have a very aggressive proposal to Congress to fund graduate fellowships next year as well. The spike you see in 2010 is a result of the [ARRA] stimulus package. Our aggressive proposal is to continue to maintain a leadership role in the support of graduate students. I am optimistic that even with the Continuing Resolution, and the continuation of continuing and continuing resolutions [audience laughs], that we will end up where we want to be at the point where we continue to increase this commitment to the STEM pipeline. These are $40,500-per-year awards, and they are three-year awards for a period up to five years.

Slide title: Graduate Research Fellowship Program Funding

Slide image: Bar graph showing actual Graduate Research Fellowship funding (dollars in millions) in FY2001 through FY2010 and the requested amount in FY2011.
FY2001: around $58 million
FY2002: around $67 million
FY2003: around $85 million
FY2004 and FY 2005: around $96 million
FY2006 and FY 2007: around $95 million
FY2008: around $96 million
FY2009: around $162 million (includes $47 million of ARRA funding)
FY2010: around $146 million
FY2011: around $158 million (requested)

Image credit: National Science Foundation

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The next slide shows the dollar volume of commitment over the last 10 years: FY 2001 to FY 2010. FY 2011 is a request; it is not guaranteed. You can see that the request is to continue the momentum created by the stimulus package, because we believe our future economic leadership, scientific leadership, and leadership, and national security depends on this support that NSF can provide.

The 2011 budget fell into the category of "aggressive leadership" in its proposed increase in these fellowships. At this point, however, we simply have to be optimistic.

Now, speaking of optimism, I have been accused by some of being pathologically optimistic [audience laughs], I bring exciting news from NSF's latest workforce data that U.S. universities produced nearly 50,000 [to be exact, 49,562] research doctorates in 2009, the highest number ever reported by our Survey of Earned Doctorates. Doctorates awarded in S&E fields were up 1.9 percent over 2008, owing entirely to growth in numbers of female recipients. Doctorates were up from 2008 in seven of the eight major science fields of study. And S&E graduate enrollment continued to rise, from 1999, reaching a new peak of almost 600,000 in the fall of 2006. But, at every juncture in the pipeline, whether it's the high-school-to-college, college-to-graduate-school, or post-PhD-to-full-professor transition, there will be many who will choose other paths -- some by choice, some by circumstances -- either early on or even perhaps right before they graduate.

As a nation, we have made positive strides regarding gender and education. But let me pursue the pipeline metaphor a little bit further. There are at least three major areas of opportunity and concerns that need to be addressed in this pipeline. First, there are some signs that we are improving in this initial supply, in some of the three areas, at least partially. Let me give you some data. Last year, 72 percent of U.S. high-school valedictorians were girls. And that number appears to be increasing. Women outnumber men in attaining college degrees by 20 percent; and many more women than men receive graduate and law degrees.1 But the loss of talented young people from the science and engineering workforce remains a key issue. So while an increasing percentage of girls and young women enter the science and engineering disciplines, there is a large drop-off in their participation in graduate and post-graduate science and engineering studies. Yet, more loss occurs as fewer women choose science careers. If the reduction weren't bad enough, we have an increasing supply difference between men and women. At least the slope of the supply is starting to change significantly, and that's another source of concern.

CGS has found that women take 7 to 10 percent longer than men to complete STEM doctorates. NSF's Science & Engineering Indicators gives us reason for some optimism, which I'll show in the next slide.

Slide title: Women and Minorities in STEM

Slide image: Bar graph showing the percent of women and minorities in STEM by degrees awarded in 2008 and employment in 2006: 
Bachelors: 50%
Masters: around 47%
Doctorates: around 41%
STEM Employment (2006): around 27%
Bachelors: 28%
Masters: around 26%
Doctorates: around 21%
STEM Employment (2006): around 25%

Image credit: National Science Foundation

In 2008, women earned 50 percent of science bachelor's degrees and 46 percent of science master's degrees. But, at the doctoral level, they drop off to 41 percent. At the same time, women made up 44 percent of science graduate students. In 2006, women comprised only 26 percent of employed scientists and minorities were 25 percent, and those numbers are shown toward the right [of the slide].

You can also see the data is shown for minorities for bachelor's degrees, which is about 28 percent or so. For master's degrees, it is about 24 percent, and doctoral degrees are at 21 percent for all fields of science and engineering; the results are uneven across disciplines and remain a cause for concern in a number of fields.

And while in some of these areas of concern for the future we have trends that point to increasing supply; there are areas where we have concerns with supply and retention, and this requires significant attention on our part.

So, looking into the future, we have the issue of the scientifically and technologically savvy workforce in the country, where women are entering, at least after high school, in greater numbers, but retention is an issue. By 2040 or 2050, we will be a country of a majority of minorities; we have a significant issue in engaging them, at the present time, in our science and engineering enterprise and education. We have to be very careful about interpreting some of these data and take corrective action. We cannot wait 20 or 30 years to act.

Lag plays a role in some of these disappointing numbers, since the workforce comprises people who earned degrees over a 30-plus-year span, and over a segment of that time, women earned many fewer S&E degrees. When you average out, you miss out on a lot of interesting information. Recent reports by the American Association of University Women,2 The International Center for Competitiveness,3 The National Academy of Sciences,4 and many individual researchers have studied this issue. They all attribute the loss of women out of the pipeline -- between graduation and early careers and their low representation in STEM employment -- to various interrelated factors. Clearly, this is a very complex issue involving many variables including family issues, as recently addressed in reports by the Center for American Progress and Berkeley Law.5, 6

There can be barriers to simultaneously following a scientific career and starting a family. Can universities, federal agencies, and partner organizations, such as the graduate school community, help? That answer must emphatically be "yes," if we are to address this issue.

Acknowledging that CGS's "Ph.D. Completion Project" is a long-term undertaking, I am hopeful that at its conclusion, you will have a better handle on completion and attrition factors that we can address. My colleagues at NSF, and I, would like to be kept abreast of results along the way so we can collaborate on an informed intervention agenda.

There are three sources of the pipeline issue that I mentioned earlier. The first one is related to the gender issue and gender inequality and the changing trends in the last few years. The second issue is the low participation of underrepresented minorities. There is a third issue.

In addition to addressing the challenges of STEM diversity aggressively in the short-term, we will have lasting impact on the future of science in the United States as well as the future of our nation in general. Intertwined with the U.S. deficit in STEM of gender and racial/ethnic diversity are some key global trends that leads me to a third factor. Given the increased global democratization and interconnectedness, and economic prosperity in developing nations, STEM graduates will have many more career options and residency choices. Not long ago, one really fought to come to the United States to pursue graduate education and then to stay. We are now seeing perhaps a beginning of a potentially rapid shift in that trend. We don't have enough data to be conclusive, but there are indications. Many more students can stay in their country of birth to study and permanently reside. That will have a huge impact on the scientific enterprise of this country.

Let me share a personal perspective. I came to the U.S. in 1977 with half a suitcase on my first airline flight; went to Ames, Iowa, to pursue a master's degree. By now, I am sure you have noticed that the accent I have is from Iowa [audience laughs].

For over 200 years, the United States has been the "land of opportunity." I know. That is why I came as a graduate student. And, at that time, I did not have a second destination in mind for graduate study. And, it wasn't just me. So, if you look at people who are more accomplished than me -- the 300-plus U.S. science and medicine Nobel laureates -- of them, more than a quarter were born abroad. These are American Nobel laureates, a quarter were born abroad. To give you an example of my previous institution, MIT. In the School of Engineering, there were approximately 375 engineering faculty members who reported to my office. Of them, 43 percent were born abroad, and 40 percent of the graduate students similarly were of foreign birth. The reality is that for the past 50 to 60 years, at least, the beacon of opportunity in the U.S. made us the unquestioned destination for those seeking advanced STEM degrees. And, it also beckoned as the place for me to call my "home," after I finished my graduate education.

Today, there is an increasing choice of other tempting places of opportunity. In 1977, when I graduated from an elite Indian undergraduate institution and chose to come to the U.S., a large fraction of my classmates from this small cohort of graduates in engineering chose to do the same. With rare exceptions, we all chose to pursue scientific careers in this country. Thirty years later, in 2007, among similar numbers of graduates from the same institution (this is just one anecdotal example), a relatively smaller fraction chose the U.S. for further study. Many of those who decided not to come to the U.S. to pursue graduate education also left science and engineering practice, and these were some of the top students. That has implications for graduate research in American institutions.

Slide title: Doctorates awarded in science and engineering fields, by citizenship: 1989-2009

Slide image: Line graph comparing the number of S&E doctorate recipients (in thousands) from 1989 to 2009 between U.S. citizens and permanent residents versus temporary visa holders.

U.S. citizens and permanent residents went from around 15,000 in 1989 to over 20,000 in 2009. Temporary visa holders went from around 6,000 in 1989 to around 12,000 in 2009.

Slide image source: Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities 2009;

Does this anecdote comport with data? NSF data released this year shows that foreign S&E graduate students in U.S. institutions increased in 2006, after two years of decline, especially after 9/11. So the good news is that foreign students on temporary visas increased from 22 percent to 25 percent of all S&E graduate students from 1993 to 2006. As you can see in this graph that shows from 1989 to 2009, a 20-year period, the percent of S&E doctorates in U.S. universities of U.S. citizens and permanent residents and temporary visa holders -- essentially foreign students.

Slide title: Top 10 Countries/Economies of Foreign Citizenship for U.S. Doctorate Recipients: Total, 1999-2009

Slide image: Bar graph showing the top ten foreign sources of U.S. doctorate recipients from 1999 to 2009. The total number of doctorate recipients (in thousands) includes S&E fields, as well as non-S&E fields. The top country is China, which includes Hong Kong, with 35,520 doctorate recipients (S&E fields: 32,973, Non-S&E fields: 2,547). The other countries or economies are the following in descending order:
India (14,505; S&E fields: 13,266; Non-S&E fields: 1,239)
South Korea (14,051; S&E fields: 10,824; Non-S&E fields: 3,227)
Taiwan (7,769; S&E fields: 5,572; Non-S&E fields: 2,197)
Canada (4,958; S&E fields: 3,455; Non-S&E fields: 1,503)
Turkey (4,403; S&E fields: 3,658; Non-S&E fields: 745 )
Thailand (3,286; S&E fields: 2,802; Non-S&E fields: 484 )
Japan (2,651; S&E fields: 1,935; Non-S&E fields: 716)
Mexico (2,322; S&E fields: 1,965; Non-S&E fields: 357) and 
Germany (2,196; S&E fields: 1,698; Non-S&E fields: 498)

Slide image source: Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities 2009;

And, in 2007, the number of S&E doctorates earned by temporary residents rose to a new peak: 13,700. This next slide shows the citizenship of S&E graduate students [doctorate recipients] from the top-10 countries of source: China, India. You can see that South Korea is almost the same as India, with a much, much smaller population. And it also shows S&E fields and non-S&E fields. South Korea is followed by Taiwan, Canada, Turkey, Thailand, Japan, Mexico, and Germany.

And, three-quarters of the foreign recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates in 2004 to 2007 reported that they intended to stay in the U.S. after graduation. However, consistent with my anecdote, between 2000 and 2007, the percentage reporting definite plans to stay decreased for all of the top five countries of origin shown on this slide. That indicates a potential trend for the future: China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and Canada, our neighbor.

And, interestingly, CGS's own 2009 annual research, reported last week, shows that for the first time since 2004, enrollments of new international graduate students in U.S. schools declined by nearly 2 percent. It's just one data point for one year. Meanwhile, growth for U.S. students was 6 percent. The 10-year trend in average annual growth for first-time graduate enrollment is nearly 5 percent for U.S. students and 3.3 percent for international students. That also points to a potential trend.

The world has improved materially, and students and workers have many more viable options. For example, in 1977, the year I came to the U.S., it took almost 8 years to obtain a landline telephone number in several parts of India, including in my hometown. Last year, approximately 8 million new cell phones have come on line in India every month! So, in a 30-year period, this has really flattened the world in terms of information, access to information, and in terms of changes in society. Technology has changed the very paradigm by which we connect with one another, conduct many of our day-to-day lives, and weigh national well-being, material assets, and future potential.

Bottom line: There are many opportunities now outside the U.S., and also, many opportunities for the scientifically gifted, outside of science. I don't think the universities in the U.S. and elsewhere have quite fully absorbed all these changes. The next decade will offer us ample data from which clearer longer-term trends could be extracted.

However, U.S. graduate institutions are also well situated still. Noted sociologist of science Jonathan Cole, former Columbia University Provost, writes in his book, The Great American University, that of the top 20 universities in the world, as of a 2008 evaluation, only 3 are outside the United States. And, of the top 50, just 14 are outside the U.S. Despite this, there is increasing speculation that we are losing our edge in STEM education, innovation, and ability to sustain our international standing in these areas. Indeed, fortunes can shift very rapidly, so there is absolutely no room for complacency.

It was not until the great "brain drain" of Europe -- surrounding the First and Second World Wars -- that we, as a nation, enjoyed a massive "brain gain." Those tragic events created the foundation for our graduate schools' excellence virtually overnight, in a very short period of time. Several factors favored our ascent: Freedom of Inquiry, a well-functioning democracy, and an emergent federal investment in basic science. A rapid transition spawned our world-class graduate institutions. As a warning, note that this 50- to 60-year status is not long, compared even to the lifespan of your graduate institutions.

Your Commission on the Future of Graduate Education in the United States documents how fragile ascendency can be. Here are some data. In 1977 (for me, the world begins in 1977 [audience laughs], the year I arrived in the U.S., some 82 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in the U.S. were granted to U.S. citizens. By 2007, this figure had fallen by 25 percentage points to 57 percent. Among Ph.D.s awarded in engineering in 2007, only 29 percent were to U.S. citizens. This was down from 56 percent in 1977. Today, in the physical sciences, only 43 percent of the degrees went to U.S. students; that's down from 76 percent in 1977. Significant declines.

We know that U.S. corporations have long sourced materials overseas. Today, services, knowledge, and talent are being sourced overseas. Some big universities are expanding far beyond the U.S. by building major campuses in other nations.

Change is not only here but is advancing relentlessly. Change can also offer opportunity.

In terms of graduate schools, I have described historic consequences in the flow of STEM talent internationally. There have been brain drains and brain gains. There is potential for the United States to position itself at the center of a kind of "brain circulation." Our borders, our attitudes, and our graduate schools are all open. We think on an international scale, cultivating a new age of excellence in international science and international science diplomacy. This aligns with the thinking of graduate education leadership who issued a 17-nation agreement on quality in doctoral and master's education and research principles.

No matter where graduate education takes place, we must retain our partnership of cultivating STEM talent through the integration of research and education. This is extremely critical.

Jules B. LaPidus, for whom this lecture is named, argued that scholarship is critical to the educational function of the university and that research is an integral part of graduate education.7 He identified several elements of scholarship that are central to, and I quote, "the messy questions that the new Ph.D. recipient will encounter in the real world." He reminded us that the core of graduate education is how to read and listen critically, define and analyze, grasp the important questions, understand the meaning of one's results, learn from the entire process, and articulate your point of view.

If U.S. institutions stick with that formula, our institutions will not only stay at the front edge but define the front edge in global competition for STEM human capital. If we teach research as a process for converting information into knowledge so that the knowledge will foster innovation, I believe we can define that front edge. That can be our edge.

Thank you, again, for this honor and for the opportunity. I look forward to working with this community in my role as Director of NSF.


  1. Bennett, Jessica, and Jesse Ellison. 2010. "Women Will Rule the World." Newsweek. July 6. Retrieved online on 12/2/2010 at
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  2. Association of University Women. 2010. Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In Breaking Through Barriers for Women and Girls. Washington, DC: AAUW. (
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  3. Zahidi, Saadia and Herminia Ibarra. 2010. The Corporate Gender Gap Report 2010. Geneva: World Economic Forum.
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  4. Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. 2007. Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences. (
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  5. Center for American Progress. 2010. Creating 21st Century Jobs: Increasing Employment and Wages for American Workers in a Changing World. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.
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  6. Berkeley Center on Health, Economic & Family Security and Georgetown Law’s Workplace Flexibility 2010. (2010, December.) Family Security Insurance: A New Foundation for Economic Security. Retrieved online on 12/2/2010 at
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  7. LaPidus, Jules B. 1998. "Chapter 8. Scholarly Research: Oxymoron, Redundancy, or Necessity?" in Assessing the Value of Research in the Chemical Sciences: Report of a Workshop. National Research Council, Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
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