LETTERS TO THE EDITORS
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.
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
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.