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Geologic Column
Was Chicken Little Right?
Fred Schwab

In recent years, it has at times felt like the “sky is falling” on sciences in the United States. The answers to two recent popular questions about science and technology could determine whether or not Chicken Little was right: (1) Is the era in which Americans dominated science and technology over?; and (2) have all the truly important, challenging questions in science been answered? The geological community is better at ignoring than answering these questions. It’s time we step up to the plate.

National decline

On May 3, the New York Times reported that U.S. dominance in science and technology is ending. The story was based on dramatic drop-offs in the “authorship” of U.S. patents by American citizens, the proportion of doctoral degrees in science and engineering earned by Americans, the number of American Nobel Prize winners, and the number of American-authored papers in major professional journals.

Similarly, Thomas L. Friedman, in the April 22 New York Times, noted the American decline in science, deploring the lowering proportion of Americans graduating with bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering (less than half the percentage in China and Japan), as well as flagging U.S. governmental support of research. Friedman and others emphasize the drastic drop in foreign graduate students in science post September 11, but concede that some bureaucratic obstacles to issuing visas are diminishing.

Figures from the National Science Foundation report on science and engineering degrees are modestly discouraging. Specific data for the earth sciences is chilling. From 1966 to 2000, total bachelor’s degrees almost tripled, but the proportion of science and engineering degrees fell from 35.2 percent to 31.8 percent. For master’s degrees, the proportion of science and engineering degrees declined from 29.2 percent to 21.0 percent, and doctoral degrees dropped from 64.5 percent to 62.8 percent. While the total number of four-year degrees in earth, atmosphere and ocean sciences rose from 1,712 in 1966 to 4,047 in 2000, the proportion of these precipitously declined from 0.9 percent to 0.3 percent of all science and engineering degrees. Advanced degrees in earth, atmosphere and ocean science declined as well, but less severely.

The American Geological Institute (AGI), which publishes Geotimes, also continuously monitors supply and demand in the geosciences. The 2002 AGI Annual Report shows total geoscience enrollment falling from 47,301 in 1983 to 15,725 in 2002, a decline of 67 percent. Geoscience degrees (essentially majors) in the same period tumbled from 6,827 to 2,680, a decline of 61 percent. We as a profession need to take a mature look at these sobering numbers and proactively respond more aggressively than we have thus far.

Geology in the twilight zone?

Part of our discipline’s enrollment problem may be linked to changes in science overall, but I doubt it. John Horgan presented a strong argument for the rapid demise of challenging, exciting scientific discovery in his 1996 book The End of Science. The focus of geology continues to shift rapidly from classical analyses and interpretation to practical application, but I doubt that we have lost our “edge” of discovery.

Sitting in on Geological Society of America symposia and “Hot Topics” sessions at the 2003 fall annual meeting, and taking a cursory survey of recent journals, I saw that current research typifies historic standards. A mixed bag includes both mundane, pedantic “who really cares?” topics together with fascinating, potentially breakthrough studies. In any case, few, if any, of us envisioned how much geology would change from 1960 to 1970, with the plate tectonics revolution. I do not think our science is anywhere near its twilight, except of course if we fail to place its future in the hands of the best and brightest. We can and must effectively deal with that problem.

Optimists or pessimists

Less than 7 percent of all high school students currently take an earth or space science course, with almost 90 percent taking biology (see Geotimes, September 2002). The high school student population increased markedly from 1990 to 2000, as did the number of science teachers. The collective biology-physics-chemistry teaching corps rose 12.2 percent, two-and-a-half times as much as the earth science teaching corps. We obviously do not have enough highly motivated and inspiring folks teaching geology in high school and beyond. The present job market leads bright young folks to make a simple economic calculation: Too much time and effort is necessary for an uncertain future in the five “job areas” traditionally pursued by geoscientists — petroleum, environmental science, mining, education and government. Too many of us in university classrooms have allowed our science to become weak or irrelevant or vocationally limited.

Some of these problems and solutions to them were recently addressed in the two-part Geologic Column in April and May 2004, “The Department You Save May be Your Own” by Lisa Rossbacher and Dallas Rhodes, as well as in September’s Geotimes. The common theme is this: Not enough of us are engaged actively in this battle. More need to ask the hard questions about the geology profession, not sit on the sidelines oblivious to what is required of each of us to improve the situation.

I hope James Branch Cabell (1926, p. 129, The Silver Stallion) was not correct when he wrote: “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true.”


Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and a corresponding editor for Geotimes. E-mail: schwabf@wlu.edu.

Links:

"Why We Need a Corps of Earth Science Educators," Geotimes, September 2002
"The Department You Save May be Your Own," Geotimes, April and May 2004
"Building Geology for the Future: Cui bono?," Geotimes, September 2004

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