Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Face of Modern Science?

Elsewhere at the Intersection, Sheril has spent a lot of time writing about women in science, both from her professional perspective, and as an observer of the opportunities and challenges she and her sisters deal with. In a similar vein, Darlene challenged readers of the Science Cheerleader to tell her, and us, whether the U.S. is still a technological leader.

Against this backdrop, the Chronicle of Higher Education released its annual almanac issue on 29 August 2008. Known for its insider stories of success and challenges in university and college campuses, the Chronicle is not normally on the reading radar of most Americans.

That’s a shame, because if it was, Americans would know that American universities and colleges granted 594,065 Master’s degrees in the 2005-2006 academic year (the reporting year for this issue), along with 56,067 Ph.D.s The statistics don’t tell us how many of those went to American citizens, or to folks who stay in the U.S. after they finish their studies. But for the sake of argument, we’ll say that a majority probably do. Of that total, 356,169 women took Master’s degrees (59.95%), and 27,433 of the Ph.D.s were to women (48.93%). Not too shabby if you ask me.

How does this break for science? I pulled together the breakdown below to split out a few major disciplines that are easily recognizable as science or aligned with science:

Biological/Biomedical Science: 8681, MS; 57.9%, Female ; 5775 Ph.Ds, 49.2% Female.

Engineering : 30,989 MS, 23.2% Female; 7,396 Ph.D, 20.1% Female.

Physical Science/science technology: 5,922 MS , 39.8% Female ; 4,489 Ph.D , 29.98% Female.

Obviously, several interesting things fall out of this summary. First, the science related categories are fairly broad, and so there are very few of them. Second, we are turning out a lot of people with advance degrees in engineering fields. While it can be good in terms of Darlene’s question about innovation and technological leadership, it may not be so good for understanding the impacts of human actions on our environment. Finally, while women are making great strides biological and biomedical science, they are still in the minority in the physical sciences and engineering. I have to wonder what that says about America’s perspectives on climate (which is a physical science), and on the many engineering disciplines that keep our bridges up, our roads open, our buildings standing and our AC systems in top shape. I’m not saying that men can’t still contribute to these areas in new and innovative ways. I am saying that those disciplines are loosing something by not attracting more women.

Ok, fine you say, what do we do about this? Any solution has to start with girls (like my daughters) who are still in grade and middle school. They have to be exposed to folks like Danica McKeller, the Nerd Girls, and even Sheril, so they know that science and math are cool. Then we have to call them to the board, and we have to challenge them in their academics. At the same time, we have to recognize that, because women are not men, their perspectives, conclusions, and innovations won’t look or sound like they came from a man. And we as a society need to make that ok.

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