Throughout the mid-to-late 80s, the NSF and other organizations would periodically issue alarmist reports about an impending dangerous shortage of scientists and engineers in the U.S. These projections for shortages turned out to be utter nonsense, as anyone who looked at the situation honestly could have foreseen. By the early 90s, instead of a shortage, the bottom dropped out of the employment market for scientists. In the math department here I saw a large number of very good graduate students and post-docs leave the field because there were no jobs for them.
Particle theory is a field in which the job market has been varying degrees of awful since about 1970. One might argue that while this is tough on young particle theorists, it means that the few who get jobs will be truly outstanding and the subject will flourish. The problem with this argument is that particle theory has seen extremely little progress since the mid-70s, about the time that one would expect the effects of the tight job market to be seen. The main reason for this is that the standard model is just too good, but one could plausibly argue that the evidence is that a very tight job market is bad for the field. Good people don’t go into it; those that do and survive do so by not working on anything too ambitious, because it could easily fail and they’d be out on the street.
Mathematics is a much more normal job market than particle theory, but there still have always been a lot more Ph.D.s than jobs where they can use their talents. The job market in math was terrible in the early-to-mid nineties, got better in the late-nineties and is not so bad now. Our students seem to be doing relatively well at getting jobs. Budgets are tight, especially at state universities, but a lot of people hired during the 60s are finally starting to retire.
The NSF is now at it again, with its National Science Board issuing a glossy report entitled An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force. A good article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on this, but also has a lot of information debunking the report.
Why does the NSF repeatedly engage in this kind of alarmism and dishonesty? If you take a look at the membership of the National Science Board, you’ll find no young scientists, but a lot of university and NSF administrators, corporate executives, and senior professors. All of these people have a large vested interest in flooding the scientific labor pool in the U.S. so that it will provide a lot of cheap labor. The NSF gets much of its funding from Congress by emphasizing its role in training scientists, so of course it wants to claim that more of this needs to be done. Universities and corporations want lots of new Ph.D.s so they can get the best ones to work for them for peanuts. Universities want lots of grad students to provide cheap labor as TAs. Senior professors, at least in the experimental sciences, want lots of grad students to staff their labs cheaply. These people all seem to firmly believe that a system that produces huge numbers of underemployed and badly paid young scientists is the best thing for science and for the U.S. as a whole. In fact, it is just the best thing for their personal interests.