U.S. science funding sends young people a mixed message

Much effort is expended on informing young people about the wonders of science. Lab classes at school, hands-on museums, television shows, competitions and publications such as our own Science News for Students are designed to cultivate an appreciation for knowledge and to encourage students to pursue careers in science. I wholeheartedly endorse efforts to improve and expand STEM (short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. I think science, and more specifically scientific thinking, is the most powerful tool for understanding the world. Everyone should learn how to think like a scientist.

Some doubts about the depths of U.S. support for STEM, however, began to creep into my mind while reading staff writer Beth Mole’s article about the acute effects of the government shutdown and sequester amid chronic underfunding of U.S. basic research. The story highlights the broad array of important science that depends on federal dollars, from studies of disease and climate to investigations of the cosmos. Unfortunately, at this moment in history, being dependent on federal funding puts any enterprise, no matter how worthy, in an extremely vulnerable position. More and more aspiring researchers are finding that instead of marking the beginning of a research career, earning a Ph.D. means the end of their professional lives as scientists. “Of current biomedical doctoral students,” Mole writes, “only about 25 percent are projected to get tenure-track faculty positions and carry out independent research in the next five years.”

I still see the value in strong STEM education. Science education is much more than pre-professional training — at its best, science teaches people how to think critically and provides access to a deeper understanding of the physical world. But I find myself wondering about our nation’s commitment to sustaining a robust scientific community. Why work so hard to convince young people to devote themselves to science if there are fewer and fewer research opportunities?

Those who have dedicated a substantial portion of their young lives to earning an advanced science degree ought to have at least a decent shot at a research career. To make this happen, the United States needs to invest more in science, and reverse the ebb in funding seen over the last decade.

That investment would mean more than simply jobs. It would also ensure that our nation remains a global leader in science, driving the engine of discovery to new frontiers. Now, that kind of commitment just might inspire the next generation of scientists. 

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