STEM work is critical to a strong, healthy economy

Rachel Kerestes, Executive Director, Science is US |

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The following article was published in the November 2020 issue of Georgia Pathways Magazine.

When I began college in the 1990s as a biology major I was joining the field in one of the most exciting times for molecular biology—genetic engineering was delivering new cures in medicine and new plant varieties that would revolutionize agriculture, the human genome project was underway and news of the first successful mammalian cloning experiment, a sheep named Dolly, was reported. But with all of these rapid technological advances, policy lagged, and policy makers struggled to understand how to grapple with key questions related to regulating and safeguarding groundbreaking science. I left the lab for a career as a social scientist—focusing on science policy—instead.

Over twenty years later when I took on my current role with Science is US, many of those challenges related to the intersection of science and policy remained. But now, with Science is US, we had a platform to bridge those gaps. Science is US unites individuals and organizations dedicated to expanding federal support for research and greater use of science and evidence in the development of public policies at all levels of government.

Our first undertaking was the completion of a study designed to quantify the economic impact of occupations in science, technology, engineering, math and medical-related fields nationwide and among a group of selected states including Georgia. The findings were eye-opening to say the least and we were even more energized to dig into our work.

More on the study in a moment.

Soon after we released STEM and the American Workforce in late January, news of the first Covid-19 cases emerged. Within weeks, the pandemic reached the United States and, like so many U.S. businesses, our office was closed and we were sent home to continue our work.

Like school administrators, teachers and students, we adapted to working and learning remotely. We hired and trained needed staff, engaged organizations with which we shared common interests and learned how to work together virtually to promote important STEM-related issues. Despite the challenges, we made valuable progress and continue to strive to achieve our objectives.

This year hasn’t been easy for any of us. Teachers and students want to return to their classrooms safely and parents want to get back to our usual work environments. As the parent of a pre-school aged child, I have seen first-hand how teachers and administrators have tapped every resource possible to develop creative ways to connect with their students. Learning online may not be ideal, but it has been necessary as solutions are developed to resume in-class instruction. Rest assured that science will help guide us back to class, work and more normal routines.

It was equally difficult to watch the pandemic collide with the election season as political figures used (or misused) science to advance their respective agendas. As someone who has worked in public policy arenas throughout my career, it was immensely disappointing to see science weaponized in such a way.

As I mentioned, our first Science is Us mission was to present the findings of our study on the STEM economy. The analysis, which took the most inclusive view of STEM to date using 2017 data, determined that 67% of U.S. jobs and 69% of the nation’s gross domestic product are supported by science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. In addition, STEM fields produce $2.3 trillion in federal tax revenue annually, making it the primary economic engine for the United States.

The analysis reviewed hundreds of occupations defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and examined STEM employment and economic output across the country. Of the 195.8 million jobs identified across the 819 occupations, more than 130 million were direct, indirect or induced STEM jobs which created more than $13 trillion in gross domestic product.

And STEM employment has a clear economic ripple effect locally and regionally, with 64 million (33%) U.S. jobs being high-skilled STEM professions, another 66 million are tied to or dependent upon them.

In addition to generating the more than $2 trillion in Federal tax revenues, STEM-related employment created more than $1.2 trillion for state and local treasuries, making them financial lifelines for many cities and states as well.

As we found, STEM professionals are more than the rocket scientists or software engineers often associated with science and technology jobs. They include skilled Americans with backgrounds outside of academia and innovative professionals working in every segment of our economy, demonstrating the value of our universities and the inclusive nature of the boom in STEM across America.

Perhaps most surprising, however, was the realization that 59% of U.S. STEM professionals do not hold a bachelor’s degree, which should be of interest to educators, particularly those guiding high school students to their next educational frontiers, as well as those in junior and community colleges. One need not earn a master’s or doctoral degree to be successful in science-related fields.

Our workforce study, which also examined data in 10 states, was equally encouraging for Georgia where STEM is responsible for more than 3.7 million jobs (62%), more than $710 million (71%) of labor output and nearly $375 million (66%) of gross domestic product. In 2017, STEM-supported employment in the Peach State generated $61 billion in federal tax revenues and $28 billion in state and local taxes.

In Georgia too, more than half of STEM jobs, 58%, are held by women and men without a bachelor’s degree, the study found. Across the country, these are licensed practical nurses, electricians, advanced manufacturing specialists, laboratory technicians, military communications systems managers and others who make up the backbone of the STEM workforce.

As you might imagine, STEM employees, regardless of education level, earn higher wages than their non-STEM peers, 29% more according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Commerce report.

Science and engineering have as much potential to change the world today as they did when I first entered the lab in the 1990s. As we saw in 2020, they help guide our thinking and enables us to make wiser choices. They allow us to learn, explore, grow and adapt. In the months ahead, science will guide us to a vaccine for Covid-19 and, I am confident, put us on a path to economic recovery.

Here’s to the ever-expanding benefits of science, technology, engineering, math and medicine in 2021.

Rachel Kerestes is Executive Director of Science is US, a foundation-supported effort that brings together a diverse group of science, engineering, industry, higher education and labor organizations to advocate for science-based public policies.

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