STEM Researchers: Do We Produce Right Stuff?

Updated Mar 17, 2015

Dr. John C. NemethDr. John C. Nemeth
Last year’s broad and strident attention to the Obama administration’s effort to consolidate and streamline the nation’s STEM education programs prompts me to report the results of a NIH-SWAM project survey I did on STEM Ph.D. and graduate school candidacy.

Paired with the administration’s “bloody sword of reality,” the efforts out of RTI and Indiana University, nicely summarized in Science (Mervis, 2014), bring some form and substance to the notion that we produce enough STEM graduates. Certainly, Dr. Hal Salzman of Rutgers has long held this position. But, do we really?

In 2012, our PNNL-led team set out as a portion of a larger NIH-SWAM-sponsored project, “Analysis and Modeling of Demographic Cohorts in the Population of Ph.D. Recipients in Science and Engineering,” to examine demographic dynamics of the scientific workforce, and to develop, calibrate and evaluate evidence-based dynamic models of scientific workforce population change. We wanted to know the impact of the increasing proportion of foreign graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, the “right” proportions of female and minority students, and should the rate of participation be increased to attain population proportions that reflect more closely our country’s emerging demographics.

I surveyed over 70 experts from academia, governmental officials, academic research association executives and private sector individuals, including administrators from historically Black colleges and universities and upper-tier and middle-tier academic research institutions. These persons, with whom I have interacted in my five decades of work, and the results, albeit anecdotal, encapsulate a vast store of experience.

These qualitative research findings reinforce the belief that it is high time to rethink how we see the STEM standard bearers of the future. Duplication, comfort, entitlement and little or no results-based evaluation have made for a witches’ stew of STEM education policy and practice. Thus, many are concerned about a key ingredient of the U.S. STEM enterprise — underserved minority participants and women (URM&W). Left alone, will the magnitude of URM&W grow with enough power to perpetuate the viable STEM enterprise we must have?

Remonstrations about the need for more URM&W at top echelons of research and education to match emerging demographics are legion, but what to do about it? I chose to ask experienced professionals on the STEM frontline for guidance.

Using survey questions and giving free rein, I wanted the personal insights of highly experienced, culturally and professionally diverse individuals in research, research administration and/or programmatic implementation at the advanced research levels. Survey questions took the form of “Which policies promote/hinder the development of the scientific Ph.D. workforce in the U.S.?” Unattributed opinions on the state of STEM research were most welcome, freely expressed and candid. Using the information from individuals with such diverse backgrounds, we hope to inform the factors used in and the directions taken in the analysis and modeling of the larger ongoing project.

The resulting collective opinions are an aggregate of survey respondent expressions.

Initially, focus was on investigating the influences that national or at least broadly based and implemented policies might have on the dynamics of the study cohorts. Finding that there were none, I looked at the development and promotion practices and the ways that the upper-level research enterprise has evolved in this country.

Typically many wanted to troubleshoot the premise and study approach.

Several respondents recommended disaggregation of disciplines and performing the analysis by looking at individual fields rather than “science and engineering” or “STEM fields” broadly. Without disaggregation, nuances that are important to specific fields — biology, physics, chemistry, the various engineering areas — can be masked through analyses of only higher levels of aggregation. So, where do we draw the line on how many disciplines to analyze?

Opinion of governmental policies and programs was an area of consistent feeling ― angst.

They said it is not productive to focus on “policies” that have had or currently do influence Ph.D. research broadly, because there are no overarching, large-scale, broadly applied, coordinated policies with consistent, long-term funding that promote Ph.D./graduate research. Many respondents simply asked, “Policies, what policies?” If and when policies are developed, they have to be well-defined, goal-oriented and equitable.

However, the future quality and quantity of Ph.D. research by increasing diversity of the candidates will require subtlety and finesse, and selective encouragement. It would be nice if 13 percent of U.S. scientists were African-American and 15 percent were Hispanic, but there would have to be a reason why students are equitably attracted to these careers when their life experiences are often so different. “It is more important that all kids see opportunities for themselves in all disciplines, see diversity welcoming them and not feel excluded by culture, and feel realistic about their individual capacity to make it in a challenging career, feeling neither unempowered nor having false confidence.”

Somewhat surprisingly, a number of respondents chose to comment on the nature of research credentialing as an influencing factor.

A core of educated persons capable of attacking complex issues requires agreement on the precept that a Ph.D. is earned strictly for demonstrated ability to conduct independent research successfully, and that same credibility can accrue without a Ph.D. If we relied only on those with the diploma, there would be much less scientific progress than we see today.

Then there are also many who might have pursued but not have achieved a Ph.D. even though they are fully capable. Realistically the situation is fraught with politics and shallow tradition, but there is no question that having one’s Ph.D. card punched is an advantage.

This said, however, there is no overarching accreditation for Ph.D. programs. Heaven help us if there were. The criteria would have to be so esoteric that there could be few accrediting authorities with appropriate credentials. In any case, it would be difficult to target and attain some culturally stable critical mass of Ph.D.s. We need more intelligent and capable people doing science. An earned Ph.D. or other doctorate is no guarantee.

Respondents felt strongly that science is not a “workforce” activity, and there is serious doubt that good science can be effectively encouraged by government implemented workforce policy. The consensus here seemed to be “you can’t create a scientist from a random member of the population any more than you can an NBA All-Star.”

Further, science is a calling, not a job decision. One responder said, “When advising students, I tell them that if they can imagine doing anything else other than science then they should probably not do science. The ones [who] matter are the ones that can’t imagine doing anything else, [who] are single minded. … Those are the ones [whom] I encourage, and only those.”

“Thinking of science as a workforce issue is like equating it to the number of steam-plant engineers or traffic cops; this is just if you want kids from anywhere, and especially from identifiable subcultures, to be in science. However, you have to reach them early and let them know that it’s OK to be different, and it’s OK to go against the most deeply held and inflexible convictions of all the people around you, including loved ones. Girls have to understand that it’s OK to be nerdy. Boys need to see that daydreaming about quantum physics or vector analysis instead of playing baseball or hanging out is just fine.”

“It boils down to this. The ones that have it [the love of science] need to get with people like themselves early enough so that cultural pressures haven’t killed the spark. There are a few that are tough enough or lucky enough to stick it out on their own, but not many. If you can get them together before time and a thousand psychological cuts from peers, teachers and their families have not turned them into dentists or bankers you have a shot. Otherwise, it’s a fool’s errand. Not to say that miracles don’t happen, of course. Late bloomers do happen.”

Part II will focus on our experts’ thoughts on specific ethnic and gender questions posed to them.

Dr. John C. Nemeth is president and project principal at Education and Research Consulting GP.