However, enrollment in science and engineering graduate programs rose in 1999 and 2000--the latest years for which data is available.
The decline in doctorates awarded rekindles a debate over whether the U.S. education system produces enough brainpower for the technology industry.
"The level of graduating Ph.D.s is concerning to us," said Pat Gelsinger, chief technology officer for Intel. "If we don't have the most talented people, we won't be the leaders long-term."
A high point for both science and engineering doctorates and doctorates overall in the United States came in 1998. That year, there were almost 27,300 science and engineering doctorates awarded. Nonscience and engineering doctorates have stayed fairly constant at just more than 15,200 per year on average during the past six years, according to the NSF study.
Because of the drop-off in science and engineering doctorates, the total number of Ph.D.s awarded fell below 41,000 for the first time in nine years.
"From 1998 to 2001, the decline in science and engineering Ph.D.s was almost across the board," said Susan T. Hill, the NSF's project officer for the surveys.
Hill cautioned against concluding that this is a long-term trend. "If you look at the last two years we have available--1999 and 2000--the number of students enrolling in graduate S&E programs is rising," she said. "And some of the soon-to-be-published numbers appear to indicate another increase in graduate enrollments for 2001."
The NSF survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, found that the number of foreign graduates of U.S. science and engineering Ph.D. programs is growing. A little less than 59 percent of the doctorates went to U.S. citizens in 2001, compared with 59.5 percent in 1998. In engineering, 41.1 percent of the doctorates went to U.S. citizens in 2001, compared with 43.3 percent in 1998.
For all fields, U.S. citizens earned almost 70 percent of the doctorates for 2001.
Intel's Gelsinger argued that visa laws distort the make-up of U.S. graduate programs in science and engineering, by encouraging foreign students to get masters degrees and Ph.D.s in the United States. He also worries that those foreign students are increasingly returning to work in their home countries. Gelsinger said U.S. competitiveness is threatened by a rising number of graduating Ph.D.s in countries such as, Russia and India, and by dwindling U.S. government support for research and development.
In general, technology industry leaders have argued that weakness in the U.S. education system threatens U.S. tech prominence. A lack of highly trained workers also has been cited as justifying the need to bring in foreign skilled labor through the H-1B visa guest worker.
But not everyone thinks the U.S. education system is failing the technology industry. Computer science professor Norman Matloff of the University of California at Davis points to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to argue that Ph.D.s aren't needed to work in the field. Matloff, a longtime critic of the H-1B program, also says computer science doctorate degrees aren't worth it for American techies. "The decision of American students not to pursue a Ph.D. is indeed a rational response from a salary perspective," Matloff writes. "National Science Foundation data show that the salary premium for a Ph.D. over a bachelor's (degree) is one of the smallest of all science and engineering fields."
The latest NSF survey showed small advances by women and African Americans. In 1997, women represented 32.8 percent of the total science and engineering doctorates awarded. By 2001, women had received 9,300 Ph.D.s, or 36.5 percent of the science and engineering total for the year. African Americans earned 4.3 percent of the science and engineering doctorates in 2001, up from 3.5 percent in 1998.
The NSF statistics come from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, a report of data collected on doctorates conferred in all academic fields at 416 universities. The survey covers all research doctoral degrees, but excludes nonresearch doctorates.