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Nation’s brightest increasingly shun science

America’s top college graduates increasingly reject careers in science and engineering, researchers have found, raising concerns about America’s technological future. Faced with the prospect of low-paid apprenticeships and training lasting a decade or more ? and constricted job opportunities even after that ? more of the brightest young Americans are instead pursuing the quicker and surer payoffs offered by business and certain professions, according to the Washington study. “With the notable exception of biological sciences, many of the top U.S. students with potential to become scientists are turning toward other career paths,” said one of the study’s co-authors.From the University of Washington:Nation’s brightest increasingly shun science

Study finds drop in science and engineering careers among top college seniors

America’s top college graduates increasingly reject careers in science and engineering, University of Washington researchers have found, raising concerns about America’s technological future.

Faced with the prospect of low-paid apprenticeships and training lasting a decade or more ? and constricted job opportunities even after that ? more of the brightest young Americans are instead pursuing the quicker and surer payoffs offered by business and certain professions, according to the UW study.

“With the notable exception of biological sciences, many of the top U.S. students with potential to become scientists are turning toward other career paths,” said William Zumeta, a professor at the UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs and College of Education and co-author of the study in tomorrow’s edition of the policy journal Issues in Science and Technology.

During the 1990s, the number of top-level U.S. college seniors who planned graduate study in mathematics dropped by 19 percent and in engineering by 25 percent, according to the study by Zumeta and Joyce Raveling, a doctoral student in education.

During the same period ? 1992-2000 ?master’s degrees in business administration swelled by nearly one-third and there is evidence that top students with science and engineering undergraduate majors played a part in this growth.

Even college students who majored in the sciences increasingly abandoned science after graduation, the authors found. Becoming a scientist, they say, increasingly requires an apprenticeship period that stretches out 10 years or more, including low-paid postdoctoral appointments. And at the end of this long road, prospects for satisfying, autonomous research positions are slim because of the small number of faculty openings.

More bright students therefore turn to business and the health professions such as physical therapy, speech pathology and public health, the authors found.

To document science’s shrinking appeal, the authors tracked all U.S. citizens and permanent residents scoring above 750 (the top 5-7 percent) on the Graduate Record Exam ? the most widely used graduate school entrance exam ? between 1992 and 2000.

The number of those elite students who planned to embark on graduate study in science and engineering fell by 8 percent (to around 8,000) over the eight years, while those planning to enter other fields increased by 7 percent (to around 4,650).

Using another set of data ? 2,000 senior natural-science majors from five highly selective American colleges ? the researchers found that the number of science majors with no plans to enter graduate school at any time in the future more than doubled from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 1998, while the proportion intending immediate graduate study plummeted from 48 percent to 28 percent.

“One must wonder,” Zumeta said, “how successful the United States can be in the technological age without a dependable flow of home-grown talent into the ranks of researchers and eventually scientific, industrial and policy leaders.”

The authors also noted that international enrollments in U.S. graduate programs in many science and engineering fields fell during the 1990s, an unprecedented turnaround.

To counter the exodus from science, Zumeta and Raveling recommend that the federal government take steps to make academic careers more attractive, such as by funding a cadre of highly selective research assistant professorships available only to those who have completed doctoral and postdoctoral training with distinction. While a laissez faire approach may spur adequate labor supplies in other industries, Zumeta said, scientific research is largely a public endeavor ? most Ph.D.-trained scientists do research or teaching supported by government funds.

“If public policies serve to make scientific research careers inadequately attractive to the best young minds,” Zumeta said, “this will surely work to society’s detriment in an age when scientific and technological advances are basic to economic growth, environmental protection, public health and national security.”




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1 thought on “Nation’s brightest increasingly shun science”

  1. Thanks for all the wonderful numbers. Now try opening your eyes and see that more and more money goes to fewer and fewer scientists (some with several RO1 awards). As the few sponge up most of the research funds it is inevitable that the broader population of scientists will suffer – resulting in the exodus of scientists to other fields that we have seen and setting a most unfavorable example for luring young people into scientific research.

    The pat response to this problem is to increase research spending. However that is already a failure as the NIH budget did indeed double from 1998 to 2003 – yet it did nothing to lure or retain scientists – again because despite an increase in RO1 awards established scientists received multiple awards.

    The awarding of multiple grants to individuals absolutely has to stop.

    It is way past time to reform the way federal research funds are distributed.

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