Sex and the Single Scientist

February 16, 2006

When members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science came together to talk about the federal budget Wednesday, a deep secret regarding the development of the next generation of scientists emerged:

Would-be scientists like having money and attractive people to date.

After some haggling over the budget -- whether the 2007 fiscal year budget request for research is up or down 1 percent depends on whether earmarks are subtracted from the 2006 fiscal year budget -- Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, told his colleagues how to recruit more scientists. “Pay them more money!” he said. “A kid has to choose between driving in a jalopy and having a Ph.D. in physics and having a big house and a law degree and a beautiful girlfriend.” He also lamented the fact that gym teachers are often paid as much as science teachers and “basket weaving” instructors.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Maryland Republican, added that “China graduates more English-speaking engineers than we do.... A country gets what it values.” In Japan, for instance, thousands of adoring fans line up to touch Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair when he visits, whereas in America, Representative Bartlett said, “bright girls play dumb and guys can’t get dates” if they are viewed as “dweebs.” Bartlett said that this problem is beyond money, and will only be remedied when “we as a culture appreciate [science] as an endeavor.” Representative Bartlett said he tries to counsel students away from “dangerous pursuits” like political science and law.

Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, a Michigan Republican, noted that “pretty girls don’t date nerds." He said that, once upon a time, he himself knew the pain of going dateless because he was studious. “But I found out I was just obnoxious,” he added. “This idea that young women can’t do science, we’re the only country that has that idea.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, managed to move the discussion beyond dating. She said that people like Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard University’s president, aren’t helping encourage women to go into science.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski, an Illinois Republican who has a master’s degree in engineering, a Ph.D. in political science, and was a professor at the Universities of Tennessee and Notred Dame, said that “it was my education before I got to college” that got him excited about engineering.

Despite such praise for pre-college programs, the National Science Foundation  Math and Science Partnership, which matches colleges with schools, would be cut by 27 percent in the budget request, and no new partnerships will be formed.

Arden L. Bement, director of NSF, said at the hearing that the lesson from the partnerships -- that community and higher education involvement is important in lower education -- “has been learned,” and that it should now become a core part of a national push, but does not need specific funding. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert Boehlert, a  New York Republican and chair of the committee, admonished the press for not helping to foster a culture of scientists. He referenced the scarce headlines about the National Science Medal, which was awarded on Monday.

As far as Representative Rohrabacher is concerned, the government should take some money for scientists and science teachers from the $1.7 billion requested for global warming research. He respectfully entered into the record a list of “thousands of scientists skeptical of [human induced] global warming.”

Representative Boehlert, on the other hand, hopes the money comes from somewhere else. “Even the president knows [global warming] is for real, and man has contributed to it,” he said.

David A. Sampson, deputy secretary of commerce, said that the administration is doing “all it can” to address climate change. Representative Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat, got a healthy smile out of that one. “I’m sure it will be news to the world that this administration is doing ‘all it can’ on climate change,” he said.

Miller and Rep. David Wu, an Oregon Democrat, questioned whether the Bush administration is censoring research. Miller pointed to the recent revelation that James Hanson, a NASA scientist was told by a 24-year-old “rougue press officer,” according to Boehlert, to hush up about global warming. In Wednesday’s Washington Post, Anne Applebaum writes about five California Institute of Technology scientists who published an article about potential negative environmental effects of leaks in hydrogen fuel cells. A press conference to announce the paper was cancelled by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and, according to the column, none of the scientists ever got another government grant to study the subject. John H. Marburger III, President Bush’s science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the issue is “a mountain out of a mole hill,” and that the conference was simply held up so the Department of Energy could look at the study.

In typical committee fashion, one member called the hearing “the most important of the year,” and then left, and the hearing ended shortly after Jackson Lee and Boehlert spent five minutes arguing about whether Jackson Lee had used her entire five minutes to talk.

Everybody agreed on one thing. Said Miller, “I concede that the Democratic Party is also plagued by 24-year-olds who are remarkably self important.” But can they get a date?

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