Are American Scientists an Endangered Species?

Marc Zimmer offers a new way of looking at a crisis facing American colleges and universities.

July 2, 2007

There is little doubt that the United States has some of the best science and engineering schools in the world. So why should we be concerned that the American scientist might become an endangered species?

The main problem is that too few Americans are enrolling in these programs. Although the number of students enrolled in science and engineering graduate programs in the United States has increased by 25 percent from 1994 to 2001, the number of U.S. citizens enrolled in these programs has declined by 10 percent during that period. Contrast this with India, Japan, China and South Korea, where the number of bachelor's degrees in the sciences has doubled and the number of engineering bachelor's degrees has quadrupled since 1975.

In the United States, 17 percent of all bachelor's degrees are awarded in the sciences and engineering, while in China, 52 percent of four-year degrees focus on STEM areas. This trend is just as obvious in graduate programs: U.S. graduate degrees in the sciences make up only about 13 percent of graduate degrees awarded in this country. In Japan, South Korea, Sweden and Switzerland over 40 percent of the graduate degrees are awarded in science.

The numbers indicate that the American scientist population is not healthy, especially not in comparison to scientists in other countries. This will impact America's ability to retain its
place in the global (scientific and technological) food chain. What could be responsible for this decline? My money is on the changing habitat of the American scientist , climate change, and the introduction of exotic species.

Changing habitat. The number of males going to colleges and universities in America is declining. This has a significant effect on the number of scientists, since white males make up two-thirds of the scientific workforce but represent only one third of the population. Possible reasons for this -- competition from computer games and the disappearance of chemistry sets. Fortunately the number of females entering the sciences is increasing; however it's not fast enough to keep up with the disappearing males.

African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians comprise 23 percent of the American population and the percentage is increasing. However, students from under-represented minority groups make up only 13 percent of science graduates. They are an intellectual talent pool that is waiting to be tapped.

Climate change. The authority and autonomy of science is being eroded. The current administration is mainly responsible for this. How can we expect our youth to aspire to being scientists when NASA, NOAA and the Smithsonian admit to changing reports, graphs and scientific conclusions in order to appease the Bush administration's ideas about global warming?

There are no modern Einsteins gracing the cover of Rolling Stone. Most Americans will have difficulty naming a living and influential scientist. Perhaps this is due to the decrease in popular science writing. In the same week as the Time/People/Fortune group of magazines laid off their three science writers they paid $4.1 million for the pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's baby.

Decreased biodiversity. In 2005, 29 percent of science and engineering graduate students were not U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Due to stricter immigration regulations after 9/11 fewer of these graduates were able to join the ranks of the American scientist -- depleting the species of diversity and many talented individuals.

Introduction of exotic species. Pseudoscience is putting a dent in the reputation of the American scientist at home and abroad. A $27 million museum just opened in Kentucky. It claims to use science to prove that everything in the book of Genesis is true. Three Republican presidential candidates do not believe in evolution, not surprising since a recent poll showed that half of Americans agree, and think the age of the earth is in the thousands of years, not billions. Here again the authority and autonomy of science are called into question.

According to, "One of the most important ways to help threatened plants and animals survive is to protect their habitats permanently in national parks, nature reserves or wilderness areas. There they can live without too much interference from humans." Perhaps this could be adapted for the endangered American scientists: One of the most important ways to help threatened scientists is to protect their habitats permanently in laboratories, classrooms and museums. There they can live without too much interference from politics and religion.


Marc Zimmer is the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn '72 Professor of Chemistry and chair of the chemistry department at Connecticut College.


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