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Green Economics

Why students really aren't choosing science majors

Some responsibility here must lie on the faculty. Have the scientists figured out how to bring their subject to life? 

By Guest blogger / November 11, 2011

Dutch scientist Mark Post examines samples of in-vitro meat, or cultured meat grown in a laboratory, at the University of Maastricht. Kahn argues that the dearth of students choosing science as a major might have more to do with the career's lack of appeal, rather than the students themselves.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters

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Why do so many young people major in Economics rather than "STEM"?  Is it because our bloggers are so much wittier than their bloggers?   In the Monday letters section of the NY Times, we learn the answer  .  Permit me to quote Columbia's wise Prof. Firestein.

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To the Editor:

 Why do science majors change their mind? They wise up.

Your article makes it sound as if American science students are stupid or lazy, unlike their workaholic Chinese and Indian counterparts. This is glib and insulting.

It is in their second year that students typically join laboratories and see firsthand that their dreams of a scientific career include low-paying and highly competitive professorial jobs, that getting grants for scientific research is increasingly difficult and unpredictable, that they are facing many years of postgraduate work at ridiculously low salaries and that they would have a hard time supporting a family.

Compare this future with that of the economics major (lots of math) who goes to business school and can look forward to million-dollar yearly bonuses.

American students change their majors because they recognize that this country has stopped providing a reasonable future for scientists, with slashed budgets for the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and National Institutes of Health.

For Chinese and Indian students, science remains a way out of poverty. For American students, it’s becoming the path into it.

STUART FIRESTEIN
New York, Nov. 6, 2011

The writer is chairman of the department of biological sciences at Columbia University.

Now, I can assure you that not every econ major will earn a million dollar bonus!  There appears to be  missing information here.  Prof. Firestein implicitly is assuming that every science major seeks an academic appointment.  Where are the for profit companies that would seek to hire these students?  While there is a free rider problem, they have an incentive to alert students to the types of industry careers they could have.

I agree with Prof. Firestein that an increase in the NSF and NIH budgets would lead more young people to become scientists.   Some responsibility here must lie on the faculty.   Science often appears to be a bunch of definitions and identities.  Have the scientists figured out how to bring their subject to life?  Do they compete to keep majors enrolled?  Universities do not shrink science disciplines that have few students.  If Departments lost faculty slots when they don't have students, then guys like Prof. F. would do a better job in the classroom.

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