Science's Slump

American science is in the midst of an identity crisis

| July 12, 2007

Science in the United States is in trouble. 'The numbers indicate that the American scientist population is not healthy,' writes Marc Zimmer for Inside Higher Ed, 'especially not in comparison to scientists in other countries.' Only 13 percent of US graduate degrees are in the sciences, as opposed to 40 percent of degrees in Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and Switzerland. Numbers like these make Zimmer wonder if the American scientist is quickly becoming 'an endangered species.'

The blame for science's drop in popularity, according to Zimmer, can be squarely placed on a culture that does not respect the 'authority and autonomy of science.' Creationism and other 'pseudosciences' are undermining the institution as a whole, and Americans just don't seem to care. 'There are no modern Einsteins,' Zimmer points out, 'gracing the cover of Rolling Stone.'

That may be because we're too distracted to pay attention to science. So says James Watson, who helped discover the double helix, in a panel of 'celebrity scientists' hosted by the Observer. Watson questions whether he would have been able to make his famous scientific breakthroughs with all the infotainment diversions beguiling students today. 'It may be that entertainment culture now is so engaging that it keeps people satisfied,' said Watson. 'We didn't have that.'

Instead of blaming entertainment and the media, Chris Mooney, the Washington correspondent for Seed, writes that scientists themselves should take responsibility for the declining popularity of their field. Mooney believes scientists are 'failing to communicate' effectively to the public when it comes to complex but important scientific issues. Take, for example, the clarity debacle surrounding global warming. In spite of an 'ever-increasing scientific certainty' on the human causes of climate change, Mooney writes that many Americans still do not understand the issue, nor do they rank it as a high priority. Scientists should do a little of what they do best -- research -- to discover the most effective ways to convey their ideas, so that their analysis can actually inform and influence public opinion. 'Not only is it the right thing to do' according to Mooney, 'on global climate change it's something we must do, before it's too late.'

Go There >> Are American Scientists an Endangered Species?

Go there too >> The New Age of Ignorance