If all foreign-born scientists in the United States returned to their country of origin, engineering in the United States would collapse today. Nine out of ten terminal degrees in engineering from U.S. colleges and universities go to foreign students, and over half of our engineering faculty are foreign born.
U.S. physics would collapse tomorrow. We cannot run the Los Alamos Lab or the Wolf Creek Nuclear Power station without foreign-born nuclear physicists. Physics students in U.S. universities are now approaching eighty percent.
Chemistry in the U.S. would collapse soon after. Over half of U.S. chemistry students are foreign born. In many universities, all of the graduate students studying in a chemistry department are from China.
Foreign students are not pushing American students out of science classroom seats. They are taking empty seats as U.S. students fail to enter these fields. And this dilemma extends into the fields of molecular biology, medicine, and other science-related careers.
Why are so many American students failing to pursue science careers? That is a hard question to answer with certainty, because motivations and attitudes do not provide hard data. We can be sure that there are multiple causes.
The shortages line up relative to the use of the metric system. Metric is heavily used in engineering and physics, less used in biology. And American students don’t speak metric. While all other students are converting metric measures in their head, our students are grabbing for a calculator to convert from non-metric. We must switch to metric as a society and stop crippling our future students.
Students in America take about one-fourth to one-third the amount of K-12 science courses that students take in other developed countries. This “less science, not more” philosophy has decimated any attempts to provide a stronger curriculum and has left our general population relatively “science stupid”—no insult intended, that is just the way it is.
Science ignorance is not only a factor in our per capita health care costs being 50% higher than other developed countries’ costs, but also leaves students with far too little science knowledge taught far too late.
And Kansas educationists just removed botany, zoology, microbiology and human anatomy from the Kansas Science Education Standards in 2005. Less science is less science, and we are paying for it dearly.
Science in America has been surviving because we have been importing many science students and research professionals. This has been possible because we have had a better standard of living and more resources than other countries. That is changing fast and a reverse brain drain is now underway. More scientists and science students from China and India are returning to their countries where opportunities and economic conditions are now equal or better.
We are in trouble. On a per-capita basis, Kansas still leads other states in scientist production. It is
time to teach more science, not less.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.