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How Will We Know When We Have Enough of Them?

During a recent Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable summit examining the United States science and engineering workforce of the near future, one participant contended that the nation already has enough scientists and engineers. Therefore, he argued, we should not increase our emphasis on educating more. To educate more individuals for what he believes to be too few jobs, he said, will cause disillusionment among these citizens and will hurt science and engineering.

The question in my title implies that it is important to be able to predict the number of citizens that we should educate in fields as different as English and physics. Unfortunately most, if not all, attempts to make valid predictions about the number of scientists and engineers and the specific number of individuals needed in the numerous disciplines within science and engineering have been less than satisfactory. It also seems to me that even were we able to make valid predictions, society might not be well served by attempting to channel individuals into narrowly focused career paths. If we cannot make good predictions, then how will we know when we have enough people in the pipeline? The answer is that we probably will not know. Fortunately, we may not need to.

Although many of us remain staunch supporters of the disciplines for which we were initially educated, I suggest that the demarcations between disciplines in science and engineering are becoming less sharp and will at some point become less significant. As this occurs, higher education, especially in mathematics, science and engineering, must make a commensurate change. Disciplinary higher education will be only the medium through which knowledge is acquired, because some basic characteristics are universal to a liberally educated individual. I do not suggest that we will not continue to provide disciplinary education at all degree levels. What I do suggest is that visionary institutions will recognize that all scientists, indeed all educated people, will continue to have certain essential characteristics that do not vary greatly by discipline.

Several years ago, at a regional meeting of an accrediting association, I listened for over 40 minutes as a roomful of my colleagues who are campus executives lamented the ways in which their educations had failed them. Finally, in frustration, I related to them that my education has never failed me, because it has what I consider the essential characteristics of success in all disciplines. In my final comments I will briefly discuss these characteristics.

An educated person must be able to think critically (solve problems using the data available), communicate in all the current forms (written, oral, electronic or others), acquire enough disciplinary skills to get a first job and have the ability and inclination to continue to learn throughout life.

If higher education inculcates these characteristics into all who aspire to be educated, the question of how we will know when we have enough of them becomes moot. Society can never have too many people capable of performing in most of our current positions and capable of creating the new roles to be filled by the scientists, engineers and other educated leaders of the future.

W. Franklin Gilmore
President, Sigma Xi

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