Gridlock In The Labs

Every student of America's decline has a favorite culprit, but in a year when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched with a myopic eye and NASA couldn't get a shuttle off the ground in five tries, one statistic seemed especially telling: the Japanese now have six times as many students majoring in engineering as the United States does. It is now an article of faith that a shortage of technically savvy manpower is undermining America's competitiveness and national security. The belief shapes both the federal budget, in which raising the science allocation has become an annual rite, and school curricula, which traditionally emphasize the sort of abstract physics, chemistry and biology that only a professional scientist needs. But now that the number of scientists and engineers has more than doubled in 10 years, what if the assumptions behind these fiscal and education policies are wrong? A growing number of top scientists argue that they are, and leading the contrarians is materials scientist Rustum Roy, professor at Pennsylvania State University and member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Contends Roy, "There is a gross overemphasis on making more scientists when we probably have too many today."

Easy for a tenured, well-funded researcher to say. But there is evidence that the nation indeed has a surfeit of scientists and engineers. The number of these professionals increased from 2.6 million in 1978 to 5.3 million in 1988 - but one out of six is not working in the field. And although projections by the National Science Foundation see a shortfall of 275,000 engineering graduates by 2011, several respected analyses of the model that spits out this number suggest it's not much better than chicken entrails. Demand for engineers is highly sensitive to economic fluctuations, so the projections may be way off base. Alan Fechter of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes in a recent paper that the model "does not provide a strong factual basis" for science manpower policy.

The biggest shock came from a study just released by the Institute for Scientific Information, which compiles indexes of scientific papers. ISI counted how often papers in the top 4,500 (out of 74,000) science journals had been referred to in later papers. The finding: 45 percent of these supposedly top-quality papers, published between 1981 and 1985, received not a single citation in the five years afterward. The implication is that nearly half the scientific work in this country is basically worthless.

Swayed by such evidence, a number of science policymakers are questioning the need for more researchers. In a speech last fall, NAE president Robert White pointed out that warning about an imminent shortage of scientists and engineers makes no sense at a time when there isn't enough money to support the ones we have. James Wyngaarden, former director of the National Institutes of Health, writes in a recent issue of the Journal of NIH Research that the most important biomedical research is performed by only a few top, senior scientists; the trials and funding tribulations of less talented researchers may therefore have little effect on progress. For example, recent international AIDS conferences include hundreds of papers based on copycat science. Of all the critics, Roy is harshest: scientists, he says, with their belief in their God-given right to taxpayer dollars, are little more than "welfare queens in white coats."

If America could stand fewer scientists, then science education could stand some redirection. This is Roy's ultimate objective. Rather than entice more recruits into the lab, courses should educate students to cope with the technological choices they will face in their personal, business and civic lives. To some extent, more schools are now doing this (NEWSWEEK Special Issue on Education, fall 1990). They offer courses that connect chemistry to the problem of smog, for instance, and Mendel's laws to genetic counseling. But, Roy maintains, many programs still have it backward. They start with basic principles and only eventually (by June 15, say) work up to applications. If what the country needs is not a physicist on every block but a technologically literate citizenry in every congressional district, then schools should abandon the holy trinity of physics-chemistry-biology in favor of courses centering on technology. "Only that which is connected to life will be remembered for life," Roy argues. Project 2061, a blueprint for science-education reform being developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, takes this approach. Districts in San Diego, San Francisco, Philadelphia, San Antonio, suburban Wisconsin and rural Georgia have pilot programs modeled on 2061, teaching fewer facts and making connections between concepts and applications.

Of course, every child denied a chance at a life in science might have been the next Einstein. Conservative economists use the same argument against population control: you can never tell which child in Nairobi may grow up to discover how to make wheat flourish in the desert. Accepting the view of Roy and other contrarians will reduce the pool of potential scientific talent. But it may also give the survivors a better shot at making the discoveries that matter.