The Global Chase for Innovation: Is STEM Education the Catalyst?


As science and technology-based innovations have driven economic success, countries around the world have sought ways to fuel innovation and increase the conditions and factors that promote its growth.  In the accompanying literature, innovation refers not merely to initial creativity, invention, or knowledge diffusion, but rather to the successful introduction of a technology to the market1; innovation is accomplished with the first successful commercial transaction involving a new product, process system, or device.2 This reference to commercial success directly explains the link to market dynamics and the concern with innovation as a means to economic development and growth.  To address this issue, one key approach has been the expansion of education in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.  In studies of global innovation, education — in particular, tertiary education — in the STEM fields has been identified as a critical determinant in the level of innovation.3 Indeed, STEM educated and trained individuals have been shown to be major drivers of innovation and, thus, contributors to significant economic productivity.4

To capitalize on such findings, countries such as China and India have developed major policy and programmatic efforts aimed at increasing the number of scientists and engineers, and STEM graduates overall, to reap the potential benefits of a STEM-educated workforce.  In fact, both China’s and India’s investments in producing STEM graduates have been observed with increasing disquiet in the United States (US), with expressions of concern that the US will lose its competitive edge in science leadership and, moreover, will suffer concomitant losses in innovation capacity and economic returns.5

Accordingly, related topics have been prominent in political and economic dialogues and on public policy agendas.  However, while investment in STEM appears a necessary factor in encouraging innovation and economic growth, two major cautionary issues should be noted for governments when deciding where best to invest their resources for the progress and well-being of their long-term economies:  1) STEM degree production relative to economic infrastructure development, and 2) actual interest in STEM as areas of study and careers over time.

The first and most obvious consideration is the mismatched trajectories of STEM degree production relative to economic infrastructure development and labor market capacities and needs.   Especially for developing countries, although not exclusively, the timeline for production of STEM graduates is likely to be much shorter than that of building an adequate business and economic infrastructure with compatible absorptive capacities.  The capacity to absorb highly-skilled and educated workers will be limited by businesses’ capacity to deploy them.  In addition to supporting degree attainment in other countries with established educational bases as a strategy for STEM workforce development,6 degree programs can be established in a matter of a few years.  The production of STEM graduates typically follows in four-plus years, followed by a continued demand for such programs, which universities and colleges are happy to provide.  However, business development – requiring the availability of an adequate public infrastructure, capital, financing, etc. – is likely to take longer.

Especially in a developing economy, the initial demand for STEM graduates in any specific field is likely to be sated by the first wave of graduates with the relevant skills; those following them may be rendered redundant and thus produce an oversupply.  Temporal considerations are paramount in such situations, marked by a game of catch-up in which the supply and demand for highly-skilled STEM workers are mismatched with the development of the economy and the carrying capacity of the labor market.  Such overproduction is already occurring.  In India, for example, research has found that an estimated 30% of engineering graduates are unemployed a year after earning their degrees.7 In China too, overproduction of college graduates in various fields and a recurring lack of relevant jobs have been documented.((Si, L. 2009. Ant Tribe: A Record of Inhabited Village of University Graduates. Guangxi Normal University Publishing House.)) Their burgeoning numbers continue to be a concern, characterized as posing a rising threat of social instability.8

In other words, although the development of STEM human capital is considered a critical factor for economic development and growth, labor market absorptive capacity is a defining issue in practical application.  Such STEM capital is essentially wasted in this regard.  STEM-educated workers become unemployed or must take jobs in other fields that are not necessarily recognized as supporting innovation in any direct ways.  Alternatively, these highly-skilled and educated workers also may be directed to employment in other countries that can offer more relevant career opportunities.  Indeed, this situation has been reflected in STEM workforce migration patterns.9

Mismatched production is evident in a number of countries.10 Indeed, even in countries with established records of STEM education, matching supply with demand is inexact.  In the US, for example, there has been a long-running discussion on the over- and under-production of STEM graduates, particularly at the doctoral level.  The 1990s saw an oversupply due to an increase of doctoral recipients trained to fill a looming shortfall that never materialized.11 The resulting doctoral glut led to Congressional hearings and a study by the National Research Council on the data used to support the case for a shortfall.12  The continuing mismatch of capacity and training continues unabated in the US.13

The second — and perhaps more critical — issue for governments to consider is an interesting phenomenon that seems to emerge as economies mature:  with development and the attainment of higher standards of living, interest in STEM careers appears to decline.

In the US, a lack of growth in STEM degree attainment, despite increased population over the past three decades, has been observed and lamented for some time.14 The cause of the declining interest in STEM by domestic students has been a source of hot debate.  Many analysts have faulted weak science education in primary and secondary schools, both in curriculum and the quality of training for science teachers.  This view is supported by the consistently poor performance of US students on international assessments of mathematics and science such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).[3], [4]  Countries that rank consistently at the top of these international assessments have performed well in STEM-based industries, such as South Korea in steel and consumer electronics manufacturing and Singapore in biomedical research.

Yet, what is found today is a general decline in STEM interest that appears to span different countries, including those with strong STEM achievement at the primary and secondary school levels.  Thus, for example, in a study of STEM participation across nine developed countries (South Korea, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, France, Finland, Germany, Israel), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — which also sponsors PISA — examined STEM primary and secondary level education, STEM degree attainment, interest in STEM, and intent to pursue STEM careers, as well as surveying students about the factors that influenced their choices to pursue or not pursue STEM careers.15  Of the countries studied, South Korea is particularly notable in that it only recently achieved standards of living comparable to most developed countries.  As such, case studies of South Korea might offer insights and possibly lessons for other emerging markets and growing economies like China and India.

In any case, by and large, the subject countries have witnessed the number of STEM degrees decline, sometimes precipitously.   Again, a prime example is South Korea where, in the most recent period studied, from 1997-2003, the number of STEM degrees decreased by 70%.  Moreover, this decrease occurred in the face of rising interest in other disciplines.  Students in the surveyed countries indicated higher interest particularly in business, law, and the social sciences, outpacing STEM fields by a factor of three or more.  Similar results have been found in selected cases in the US.  For example, a study of students in Kansas and Missouri revealed a marked lack of interest in STEM.  Although the students acknowledged that STEM fields were important, they were more interested in pursuing business.16 Note that fields such as business and law are more indicative of developed service- and knowledge-based economies, which developing countries are striving to achieve.

Perhaps most significant is the point that across the countries studied, increases and decreases in STEM graduates did not fall in any pattern that would be predictive of currently observed levels of innovation.  For example, the US is generally viewed as a world leader in innovation.  However, this position would not be predicted by typical metrics used to determine STEM workforce participation and trajectories, as in the OECD study — e.g., levels of STEM interest among secondary students, quality of primary and secondary school STEM education, and STEM degree attainment — nor would it be predicted by the usual indicators of a STEM-educated workforce more generally — levels of STEM degree attainment, the percentage of 20-24 year olds educated in STEM, etc.

What message does this situation carry for countries poised to invest significant resources in STEM education with an eye to significant return in the form of innovation?  Clearly, STEM education is essential in this regard.  Innovation in technology cannot occur without domain knowledge in the relevant fields.  However, STEM education cannot in and of itself create the conditions that enable innovation.  Innovation is no longer confined to the technical sector, nor should it be framed or assessed relative to an increasingly outdated cultural and technological landscape in which STEM workers and productivity are viewed in monolithic terms.17 The complexity of today’s innovation processes requires a broader perspective.  One example is social media.  The current highly-networked (by definition) social media would not have been possible without the scientific and technological innovation that made communication across vast swaths of the global population possible.  However, while it is creating new markets and consumers, social media as a social innovation does not require users to rely on or explicitly engage STEM knowledge.

Countries cannot expect to catalyze innovation solely by investing in STEM education.  They must concurrently invest in other infrastructure and knowledge that allow innovation to flourish.


[1] Innovation also can refer to the first successful military utilization of a technology (Rykroft and Kash 1999).

[2] Some groups of college graduates who cannot find employment live in camps of subpar housing in various Chinese cities and have been characterized as “ant tribes” (Lian Si 2009).



Connie L. McNeely is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University.

Jong-on Hahm is Distinguished Senior Fellow in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and Program Manager in the Office of International Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation.  (The views expressed here are her own and do not represent the National Science Foundation.)



  1. Innovation also can refer to the first successful military utilization of a technology (Rykroft and Kash 1999). []
  2. Rycroft, R., and D.E. Kash. 1999. The Complexity Challenge: Technological Innovation for the 21st Century. New York: Pinter. []
  3. Dutta, Soumitra. 2011. The Global Innovation Index, 2011: Accelerating Growth and Development. INSEAD. []
  4. Wadhwa, V., B. Rissing, A.L. Saxenian, G. Gereffi. 2007. “Education, Entrepreneurship, and Immigration: America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part II.” []
  5. National Academies. 2005. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. National Academies Press; National Academies. 2010. Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5. National Academies Press. []
  6. Hamilton, R., C.L. McNeely, and W.D. Perry. 2012. “Natural Sciences Doctoral Attainment by Foreign Students at U.S. Universities.” GMU School of Public Policy Working Paper. [] []
  7. Banerjee, R. 2008. “Engineering Education in India.” []; Mukherjee, S. 2010. “Number of engineers on Rise…” Deccan Herald, Jan 10. []
  8. Roberts, D. 2010. “A Dearth of Work for China’s College Grads.” Bloomberg Businessweek. []
  9. McNeely, C.L., and E.T. Camacho. 2010. “Conceptualizing STEM Workforce Migration in the Modern World Polity.” Labor: Supply and Demand eJournal/ERN Public Policy Institutes Research Paper Series 2 (3). GMU School of Public Policy Research Paper No. 2010-10. [] []
  10. Nature. 2011. “The PhD Factory.” Nature 472 (21): 276-279. []
  11. National Research Council (NRC). 2000. Forecasting Demand and Supply of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers: Report of a Workshop on Methodology. National Academies Press. []
  12. Ibid. []
  13. Nature. 2009. “A crisis of confidence.” Nature 457 (7230): 635. []
  14. National Academies. 2010. Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5. National Academies Press. []
  15. Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). 2008. “Encouraging Student Interest in Science and Technology Studies.” []
  16. Kadlec, A., and W. Friedman. 2007. “Important, But Not for Me: Parents and Students in Kansas and Missouri Talk About Math, Science, and Technology Education,” a report from Public Agenda. [] []
  17. Schintler, L., and C.L. McNeely. 2012. “Gendered Science in the 21st Century: Productivity Puzzle 2.0?” International Journal of Gender, Science, and Technology 4 (1). [forthcoming]; Rycroft, R., and D.E. Kash. 1999. The Complexity Challenge: Technological Innovation for the 21st Century. New York: Pinter. []


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