|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, May 10, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle 5-10-04
Fewer U.S. students training for science careers, report says
Amid renewed fears that U.S. leadership in science is threatened by foreign competitors, educators and science policy-makers are trying to find new ways to attract American students to scientific careers.
But a shortage of scientific mentors, parental pressure on kids to seek more lucrative careers, discrimination against science-bound women and minorities, and other factors continue to discourage many students from dreaming of future lives in the lab.
In a report last week, the National Science Board said there is a troubling decline in the number of American students training to be scientists. The number of 18- to 24-year-olds who receive science degrees has fallen to 17th in the world, whereas it ranked third three decades ago, the report found.
The trend could result in a shortage of trained scientists and engineers to meet rising demand for such skills and, ultimately, "threaten the economic welfare and security of our country," the report said.
The study followed headlines last week in the New York Times and other papers warning that the United States risks losing its dominance in the sciences. Science policy-makers cited a number of statistics they said bodes ill for the future of U.S. science:
-- The percentage of scientific papers written by Americans has fallen 10 percent since 1992, according to the National Science Foundation.
-- The percentage of American papers published in the top physics journal Physical Review has fallen from 61 percent to 29 percent since 1983.
-- There has been a surge in patents awarded to Asian countries. From 1980 to 2003, Japan's share of world industrial patents rose from 12 percent to 21 percent, and Taiwan's from zero to 3 percent. By contrast, the U.S. share of patents has fallen from 60 percent to 52 percent since 1980.
Concern about these trends was such that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.,said he was worried. "For all our past successes," he said, "there are disturbing signs that America's dominant position in the scientific world is being shaken."
But some veteran science-policy watchers took a more skeptical view. Some say the government reports and heightened publicity are an effort by federal scientific agencies to drum up support for funding while Congress prepares the next budget.
Panics about alleged declines in U.S. science and technology are "typical and perennial," said Daniel S. Greenberg, former news editor of the journal Science and author of "Science, Money and Politics," published by the University of Chicago Press in 2001.
"Inside-the-Beltway science (lobbying) has always been insatiable. If you double the NIH (National Institutes of Health) budget in five years (as recently happened), they're (still) screaming their heads off: 'We need more money.' "
Greenberg questioned the science lobbyists' interpretation of a number of statistics. To put scientific publishing trends in context, Greenberg says, it's important to look not only at overall percentiles but also at the actual numbers of published papers.
At first, it may sound startling to hear that China quadrupled its scientific publication rate between 1986 and 1999. But it sounds somewhat less startling if one realizes that the actual number of Chinese papers published rose from 2,911 to 11,675.
By comparison, close to a third of all the world's scientific papers were published by Americans -- 163,526 out of 528,643. In other words, China, a nation with almost four times the population of the United States, published (as of 1999) only one-fourteenth as many scientific papers as the United States.
The editor-in-chief of the nation's top scientific journal, Science, takes a more middle-of-the-road view of the fuss over American science's futures. On the one hand, says Stanford University biologist Donald Kennedy, "funding for science in the United States has stayed at pretty good levels."
On the other hand, concern about American competitiveness in science "is not empty talk," Kennedy says. Among other problems, "we're not quite as well off as we should be in getting our very best (American) undergraduates into thinking seriously about science careers."
Additionally, "we're drying up what had come to be an important source of really terrific talent, and that's people who came here for training in the sciences from China and other Asian countries," he said. One reason is aftereffects of Sept. 11 and "our re-engineered visa system, which is very difficult to penetrate."
Some complain that the competitive fuss reflects an old-fashioned view that divides the world into "our scientists" and "their scientists." Nowadays, international scientific collaborations are routine.
Science is an international enterprise, and "the (scientific) talent is now increasingly distributed worldwide," Greenberg says. And that's not a bad thing: "Hey, if the cure for cancer is found in Liechtenstein, I'm not going to go into mourning."
Whether or not it represents a threat, there is growing concern that U.S. educational institutions are not doing enough to promote the sciences.
At Harvard University this spring, a committee called for the first major overhaul of the university's curriculum in three decades. Among other things, the overhaul would boost the number of required science courses.
"Graduates of Harvard College should be able to understand the news and expository articles in journals such as Science and Nature,'' the committee said.
Some fear that students are under too much parental pressure to make a good living.
Students are avoiding both scientific and humanities careers -- careers that are often fueled by a sense of calling -- in favor of business-related jobs that promise bigger bucks, says Daniel Callahan, a pioneering figure in American bioethics.
"We've become too commercial a country," Callahan laments. Another problem is that once students are on the science track, which requires tenacity and long commitment, they lack role models to help see them through.
"If we're going to offset the declining (student) interest in science and engineering, we're going to have to encourage more (scientists) to take on mentoring and encouraging students at an earlier stage in their career," said Arden Bement Jr., acting director of the National Science Foundation, in a phone interview.
The foundation has its own program to encourage university professors to mentor promising young students. Last week, it named nine winners of a $10,000 "Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring."
Among this year's winners is Lisa Pruitt, a professor of biomedical engineering at UC Berkeley, who "has helped to smooth the way for students making the transition from undergraduate to graduate levels and has also established high-school outreach programs," according to the science foundation.
There's plenty at stake, Pruitt, 38, of Livermore said: "Science, math and engineering hold the bridge for solving so many problems for mankind ... It's extremely important that we (Americans) are key players in that (scientific enterprise) ... to benefit society and the world as a whole."
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