And as we as a nation contend with foreclosures, high unemployment and an increasing cost of living, it's hard to predict when we will see true economic recovery. Many long-term solutions -- from Democrats and Republicans alike -- have been proposed, but the key to maintaining our economic edge lies not with politics, but with science.
Science is our way out.
Consider this. The chemical industry alone creates 2 percent of U.S. GDP and exports over $145 billion of products per year, according to the American Chemistry Council. Not convinced? Think about the major challenges that face our society today. Answering the country's energy needs, climate change problems, and the increasing costs of health care will require new advances in science -- which, in turn, will create jobs.
The idea isn't new. Politicians and academics have been calling for a renewed national commitment to science for years. In 2008, Princeton University’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman, hosted a roundtable with business and political leaders to address "why now may be the most important time in the last three or four decades that we make a very serious investment in the kind of innovation and creativity that have always fueled this country and this economy." And, earlier this year, President Obama's State of the Union address highlighted the importance of research and development in science and technology. "This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said. "We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -- an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people."
Clearly, science demands our attention now. And as educators we have a special obligation to our future leaders. Now is the time, despite limited resources and uncertain economic conditions, to make science a priority -- at every level, from preschool through graduate school, and every type of institution. It may seem counterintuitive in the midst of today's economic turmoil, but now is the time to make significant investments in science education, with long-term sustainability as the ultimate goal. In other words, to be competitive in a global marketplace, where American children are lagging behind in science and math skills, we need to find ways not only to educate scientists, but also to ensure that teachers are well-equipped. To that end, further science funding cuts are not acceptable. In fact, now is the time when we should be investing more in science.
Instead, we're waiting for details of a new debt deal that could dramatically decrease financial support for science beginning in 2013. While it is still uncertain exactly how, and which, science agencies will be impacted, it is clear that $900 billion in federal discretionary funds, which includes support for science agencies, will be cut. What's worse, if the super committee fails to reach an agreement by the November 23 deadline, across-the-board cuts would be made. According to a recent article in Nature, that would mean an 11-percent reduction in funding for federal science agencies, and single-digit grant-acceptance rates from places like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It's easy -- and frightening -- to imagine the impact of such devastating cuts on opportunities for students and faculty at colleges across the nation.
It is important for colleges and universities to promote better public policy on science – and also to push ahead with improving their own programs. At the College of the Holy Cross, a small, Jesuit, liberal arts institution in Massachusetts, where I have taught for 27 years, we're preparing for changes in federal funding for science, but we're not willing to let them profoundly affect what we do. We believe that liberal arts colleges, in particular, have a special role to play in the future of science. For decades, scientists have benefited from the liberal arts curriculum, which exposes them to multiple disciplines -- essential for a future where complex issues will continue to cross the narrow confines of a major or specialized field. We recently completed a $64 million dollar, state-of-the-art Integrated Science Complex. We're expanding summer research opportunities for undergraduate students through support from our alumni, and we're hiring tenure-track faculty.
Some have criticized the value of a liberal arts education, particularly in a bad economy where jobs are scarce. But the skills students gain from a liberal arts education transcend fluctuations in the market. Others have dismissed the importance of science and research -- often the same people who carry cell phones, use computers and benefit from advances in healthcare.
What’s more, the country has several leading Republican presidential candidates — from Texas Governor Rick Perry to Minnesota Congresswomen Michele Bachmann, among others — who cast doubts on things like evolution and man-made climate change. And their opinions are upheld by an increasing number of Americans. For example, a Gallup poll released last week showed that 11 percent fewer (50 percent) Americans think humans are partially responsible for global warming now than in 2007-8.
At a time when the influence of science and technology, and the potential for life-changing breakthroughs, has never been greater, American society seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
As we look to the future of the sciences at Holy Cross, we are confident that we will see returns on our investments for years to come: We'll attract the best student scientists, we'll recruit talented and highly respected faculty, and we'll graduate well-rounded students who have experience in the lab, understand the value of collaboration and are poised to be leaders in their field. With a liberal arts-based science education, our graduates will emerge as active and informed citizens, fully prepared to solve tomorrow's important scientific problems. Will yours?
And more importantly, will America be ready for them?
Richard S. Herrick
Richard Herrick is a professor of chemistry at the College of the Holy Cross.
In its just-issued report "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation" the U.S. Department of Commerce writes that while women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering, and math jobs.
The gender gap in STEM jobs persists despite the fact that more women now graduate from college than men and the fact that women in STEM fields tend to have more equitable wages compared to those in non-STEM jobs. Women major and earn degrees in STEM fields, creating a female talent pool, but they tend to pursue careers in education and health care.
Some may say, "Well, so what? There are some jobs men like, and some jobs women like." Or they may even argue that there are some fields for which one sex has a greater aptitude than the other.
As to the "so what," the answer can be found in the report's title. As long as there is a gender gap in these fields, there will be an innovation gap. And in today's global economy, the countries that lead do so through fostering technological innovation. Creating an environment where women can reach their full potential in the STEM fields is possible and can have impressive results.
Bryn Mawr College is in the top 10 among all colleges and universities in terms of the percentage of female graduates pursuing doctorates in the STEM fields. Our students are six times more likely to graduate with a degree in chemistry than college students nationwide and nine times more likely to do so in math. In fact, Bryn Mawr is second in the nation in the percentage of female students receiving degrees in math, beating out such science-oriented universities as the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has 18 times the national average of female students graduating in physics.
How do we do it? A large chunk of the credit has to go to the college’s founders, who from the beginning (when Bryn Mawr was the first institution to offer women the chance to earn a Ph.D.) offered women the chance to get an education that was the equal to the finest available to men of the era.
But our current success comes from more than just a history of access. Every year, students come to Bryn Mawr unsure of what they want to study, and many end up choosing STEM fields.
When we ask our STEM majors what it is about Bryn Mawr that encourages them to pursue these male-dominated fields we consistently hear two things – being exposed to role models among our faculty, alumnae, and their fellow students, and the positive effect of being in a classroom in which they aren't the lone woman.
Julia Ferraioli graduated from Bryn Mawr in 2007 with a degree in computer science. When she arrived she expected to major in archaeology and had even been steered away from some of the higher-level math courses at her high school. "Studying computer science at a women's college meant that I could concentrate on learning instead of being the representative of a gender," Julia told me via e-mail. "Gender became irrelevant instead of being something that defined me."
As a student, Julia got to know a Bryn Mawr computer science alumna who has worked at AOL and PayPal and is now a web development senior manager for Comcast. The alumna and Julia’s professors encouraged her to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, where she made the connection that led to a job at Microsoft after she graduated. Julia went on to earn a master's in computer science from the University of Rochester and was just featured as the "Geek of the Week" by the website GeekWire for her work as technical evangelist with DocuSign.
As a single-sex college, Bryn Mawr has, I believe, certain advantages in encouraging its students to succeed in fields that have been traditionally dominated by men. But all colleges and universities can learn from our practices and the best practices of others as they teach and mentor students, make hiring decisions and institute policy.
At Bryn Mawr we want to engage all types of students in STEM coursework and believe they all can succeed. Offering students a variety of entry points into the sciences allows those who arrive at college with advanced preparation to enroll in higher-level courses that immediately challenge them, while students who have had negative prior experiences in STEM coursework or poor preparation can take and enjoy courses at various points in the introductory level.
An institution can also use innovative pedagogy that teaches the applications of science to attract more students to STEM subjects. For example, in introductory courses in computer science at Bryn Mawr, students apply CS principles to create graphic design projects. Across the sciences, our lab exercises focus on problem-solving rather than the execution and replication of a series of instructions.
Finally, family-friendly policies encourage faculty to find balance between work and personal life, enabling faculty of both genders to pursue the path to tenure. Ultimately this means more women in the tenured faculty ranks in STEM fields. For example, in chemistry and math, 50 percent of Bryn Mawr’s tenured faculty are women.
Women have come a long way over the last 40 years in terms of educational attainment. Achievement in the STEM fields is one area where we can still do better. At this time, when progress in these fields is so important, it's an area where we must do better.