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Of Scares and Scarcity

Dire Claims About Science Education Need Fact-Checking

Grads tossing their hats in the air SOURCE: AP/Mahesh Kumar A Is the U.S. really producing fewer and fewer scientists—and is the answer to simply crank out more?

I keep hearing it latelyin conversations, dialogues, op-eds: The claim that the number of scientists being produced by U.S. universities is in decline. Or, that the number of students enrolling or majoring in science, at the undergraduate or graduate level, is falling. For a classic example, see this recent San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, which makes a very important argument about energy education, minus the following erroneous claim: “American universities are graduating fewer students each year in the crucial fields of science, mathematics and engineering.”

We have been sold—hard—on the idea that U.S. preeminence in science is now threatened.

The facts clearly say otherwise, no matter how you slice them. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2006the last year for which data is currently availablethe nation produced a record number of science and engineering Ph.D.s: 29,854 in total. This was the fourth year in a row that the total doctorate number has increased, and a 6.7 percent increase from the year 2005 (the previous record).

And what about less advanced degrees? It’s the same story. “The numbers of S&E bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded reached new peaks of 466,000 and 120,000, respectively, in 2005,” reports the NSF in the 2008 edition of its Science and Engineering Indicators report.

And as for graduate student enrollments in science and engineering? This figure, too, has increasedfor eight years running. In the most recent tallyagain, these are 2006 numbersonly enrollments in computer sciences and agricultural sciences declined: all other fields were up.

So how is it possible that so many people appear to think otherwise?

We have been soldhardon the idea that U.S. preeminence in science is now threatened. A central factor has been the now-famous Rising Above the Gathering Storm report from the National Academy of Sciences, which announced a deep concern “that the scientific and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.” As one of its recommendations, the NAS committee called for dramatically increasing the “number and proportion” of U.S. students who earn science degrees.

That may well be a very good idea. After all, while we still lead the world in total science and engineering Ph.D. productionand while our total number of Ph.D.s produced is also increasing, at least for the momentChina’s rate of increase is far greater as it approaches us from behind, a fact suggesting that may be ceding our lead and that it (and other nations, like South Korea and India) are catching up.

All of which is a good reason for concern; but it’s never a good idea to support concern with misinformation. Indeed, getting the facts right about current trends in high level U.S. science education matters a great deal, because in doing so, we can achieve a far more nuanced view of the kinds of changes that university-based science education in American needs right nowchanges that simply cannot be captured in the phrase “more is better.”

Consider several factors that don’t fit the dominant “we need more scientists” narrative very well at all:

Attrition: A recent study from the Urban Institute suggests that while we produce large volumes of science and engineering students with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, we do a terrible job of keeping them interested in these areas. As the study puts it: “One to two years after graduation, 20 percent of S&E bachelor’s are in school but not in S&E studies, while another 45 percent are working but in non-S&E employment (total attrition of 65 percent). One to two years after graduation, 7 percent of S&E master’s graduates are enrolled in school but not in S&E studies, while another 31 percent are working but in non-S&E employment.”

Why do these students leave? The Urban Institute study cites other research suggesting that “the quality of instruction, the ‘culture’ of the discipline, and other curricular issues” turn students off. Hmm, could it be that while we’re trying to produce more scientists, we might also want to get more professors to focus on teaching, make being a graduate student less of a financial straitjacket, and broaden what’s learned so that students don’t feel like they’re just being inducted into a narrow caste of hyper-specialized experts?

Supply and Demand: Also according to the Urban Institute, “S&E occupations make up only about one-twentieth of all workers, and each year there are more than three times as many S&E four-year college graduates as S&E job openings.” It is simply wrong for public policy in this country to seek the production of more scientists without a commensurate effort to ensure that the job opportunities for them are also expanding. Right now, by contrastand as my colleague Sheril Kirshenbaum recently wrote for Science Progress—large numbers of postdoctoral students find themselves in holding patterns, unable to advance into steady tenure track jobs because there aren’t enough of them. Indeed, according to the latest NSF Science and Engineering Indicators report, increasing numbers of scientists are having to spend longer and longer stints in these poorly paid, career-delaying positions.

Catering to Industry’s Needs: If there’s a supply-demand gap in the production of scientistsa gap where the imbalance currently lies on the supply sidethen isn’t it the duty of universities to train scientists so they’re better candidates for the job market as a whole, so that they have broader opportunities? Today even S&E employers aren’t necessarily complaining about the lack of technical skills on the part of the applicants they see. As the Urban Institute report puts it: “In our interviews with engineering managers….rarely, if ever, do they say they are unable to find graduates with the requisite technical skills but rather the ‘shortage’ is of engineers with communication, management, interpersonal and other soft skills.” And yet it remains an un-won struggle to get more communication courses into graduate level science curricula.

I certainly don’t want to argue that we ought to slow production of U.S. scientists, any more than I would idiotically argue that we ought to worsen U.S. K-12 science education. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious, both to me and also to many experts surveying the U.S. science pipeline and workforce data, that any debate over it requires far more nuance than we’ve seen from the dominant “decline” narrative so far.

And what’s more, the foregoing considerationswhich complicate the “decline” narrativemight perhaps be seen as an opportunity in disguise. If we are producing more scientists than we currently have jobs for, why aren’t policymakers passing laws and enacting policies and budgets that will create jobs for these talentsjobs that serve core national needs, such as, for instance, creating and deploying innovative and clean sources of energy?

That’s a very good question indeed.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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