I must be straightforward: I have something of an idea of what I am going to be writing about in this post, but I am by no means an expert in this area. Be ye warned.
Today, I attended Washington Post Live’s Panel on Advancing Medical Innovation. It was fascinating. They had a great collection of panelists; I would strongly recommend looking into it. I’d link you up, but I can’t find any publications (forgive me, it just got over 30 minutes ago).
One thing that I found especially interesting was the reoccurring theme, “We Are Lacking In The Scientists Department.” The first panel, which consisted of Meryl Comer, France Cordova, Frank Douglas, and Rep. Donna Edwards. They discussed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and Scientific Literacy. One topic that they trended toward was the fact that young people, young people, and young people are not pursuing degrees in math and [hard] science; rather, all the young people are graduating with degrees in psychology and political science and music and other things like that. They encouraged the idea that it doesn’t matter what age you enter the math/science world, but that it would be good to encourage young people (i.e., middle schoolers) to pursue education in math and/or science.
A man in attendance (a professor emeritus from, I believe, Minnesota) made an interesting comment to the panel on their seeming disregard of the need for the “soft” sciences. Although, personally, I didn’t quite think they were disregarding the social sciences, they weren’t really emphasizing the need for social scientists working in collaboration with mathematicians and other scientists in order to complete the scientific or medical picture. This may have been, however, due to the sheer number of social science graduates that universities are currently producing: there are already plenty, so the panel may have been focusing more on the need for people to go into math and the “hard” sciences since that is where there is something of a deficiency.
However, later in the day, we heard from Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health. During the discussion, he said that there have been several instances recently where a scientist had come to Mr. Collins saying that he or she had been denied grant applications multiple times, and that since he or she couldn’t do research without money to fund it, and since he or she could not foresee receiving any grants from NIH, he or she would be moving out of the country (or something like that) to a place where it would be possible for him or her to get a grant for research.
Assuming both of these things are true, this creates quite a schism. It seems that if we, as a country, are in need of more “young people” studying science and then becoming scientists, we would be providing opportunities for scientists. We would give people a reason to want to become scientists or mathematicians. I can understand some concern in the volume of people studying social sciences, since many of those people wind up jobless after finishing their undergraduate degrees. However, as an “aspiring social scientist” myself, I view my prospective degree as more of a foundation. I’m giving myself a base for what I want to do in the future. Social science can give me insight in whichever field I may end up in: social principles are ubiquitous. If people studying math and hard sciences have no career ahead of them in their chosen field, it seems unlikely for others to want to follow in the math and sciences departments.
If we really do need more young people in math and science, we first need to make sure it will be worth their while. This will first and foremost require more funding for scientific research. The ability to have a scientific career will be the driving force behind studying science in middle school, in high school, at university, and for a lifetime.