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Supply or Demand?

To the Editors:

Fiona Goodchild has it backward ("The Pipeline: Still Leaking," Macroscope, March–April). Not enough people drop out of science, and too many degrees are awarded. There is a permanent glut of people with scientific training, with the result that scientists have terrible career prospects. Science and engineering are attractive to people from poor countries, for whom they are a path to a U.S. visa, but Americans know the prospects are better elsewhere. This will change only if the number of people trained is drastically reduced.

Science, especially its more mathematical fields, is intrinsically difficult. Trying to make it easier for those of limited talent or motivation is delusionary. Unfortunately, a well-funded industry has grown up of "science education" and "outreach" that pretends science can be made accessible to the masses. "Science for poets" is a proper part of the education of an informed citizen, but core science courses, like professional athletic teams, must exclude all but the most talented. A generation ago people worried that the Soviet Union trained many more scientists and engineers than the United States. The Soviet Union turned into an economic basket case, while the United States is the most prosperous country on Earth. Scientists are like dentists—every society needs a few, but more isn't better. It is a mistake for a command economy (which we have in science, with nearly all training and research paid for by the government) to train more than the job market requires.

Jonathan Katz
Washington University

To the Editors:

Dr. Goodchild's column addresses a critical issue in our nation's future as a leader in science and technology. It is unfortunate, but based upon my experiences I believe there are two important areas that were not considered in Dr. Goodchild's brief article.

The first is that the return on investment of an advanced science degree is lower than that of business, marketing, law and many other advanced degrees. This perception may be due to the reduction in funding for scientific research and the high proportion of foreign-born scientists competing for jobs (and the perception that these jobs have lower wages as a result).

The second factor is the anti-science attitude of our nation. Many students, including the author's children, perceive science as a harder route to take. Additionally, we have a nation where as many as 40 percent of the population identify themselves as evangelical Christians. Many, if not most, of the members of this religious group do not accept scientific evidence that differs with biblical accounts of creation. Specifically, this creates skepticism about the age of the Earth (all of geology and archaeology) and evolution (President Bush, an evangelical Christian, has publicly stated that "the jury is still out" on evolution). The cognitive dissonance inherent in this belief system makes it far less likely for a student to pursue the sciences for personal, family and community reasons.

David J. Melvin
Chester, New Jersey

Dr. Goodchild replies:

Several of the letters that were received in response to "The Pipeline: Still Leaking" made the assumption that retaining more students in undergraduate science and engineering necessarily entails lowering standards for science, math and engineering bachelor's degrees. Apparently these writers believe that the present system is successfully selecting for the most talented students. Do they seriously consider that it is possible to establish a threshold for aptitude, comparable to that used to select professional athletes or dentists?

The idea of such a threshold seems problematic for several reasons. Analysis of the academic records of students who currently leave undergraduate courses in science and engineering indicates that they are just as likely to have high grades as low ones. Setting a limit on how many students to retain in science and engineering would also be a difficult call in terms of predicting what characteristics in younger students determine future success as scientists. And surely scientific literacy and the ability to think analytically are important to any citizen who is making decisions about the future of our society, especially those who will be teachers in public schools. Finally, the fact that so many foreign students are accepted into graduate school seems to indicate that the current threshold for domestic candidates is too high.

A few letters assumed that my daughters, because they noticed that science requires extra effort, can be classified with those teenagers who are not prepared to take the "harder route." In fact our three daughters have all pursued graduate and professional careers in science and engineering. An essential ingredient of their success has been that their parents, a physicist and an educator, helped them to negotiate disincentives and obstacles along the way. I would like to see more comprehensive attention to undergraduate education so that we might retain many talented students who do not enjoy such a family advantage.

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