President Bottoms Tells Washington Post Columnist of Nation's Need to Emphasize Science Education
November 27, 1987
November 27, 1987, Greencastle, Ind. - "When America starts to run out of scientists in the next 10 or 15 years, don't blame Robert Bottoms. He's sounding the alarm as hard as he can," begins William Raspberry's nationally syndicated newspaper column. The Washington Post writer asks, "How did we wind up in such a mess? Bottoms, president of DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., says it sneaked up on us from a number of directions. The recent emphasis on 'vocationalism,' the 'glamorization of the M.B.A.' and the explosive growth in 'soft knowledge fields -- public relations, marketing and so on -- has captured young people who might have gone into science."
"Because the graduate schools were full, we thought we were doing OK," Bottoms tells the columnist. "But they were full of foreign nationals, most of them planning to return to their native lands... Within 10 years, there will virtually be no large homegrown batch of scientists available."
Raspberry writes that Dr. Bottoms' "intense interest in science education goes back two years, when he and 47 other presidents of highly-competitive liberal arts colleges -- including Reed College and Whitman College -- met at Oberlin."
"We did some studies and determined that many Ph.D.s from the big research universities did their undergraduate work at small liberal arts schools like ours," Bottoms explains. "For instance, one Midwestern state university had more Ph.D. candidates in chemistry than it had undergraduate majors in chemistry. That is significant for two reasons. First, both industry and the National Science Foundation have tended to focus on the research institutions, neglecting the contributions of the liberal arts schools. Second, while the large universities -- with 200 or 300 students in a single class taught by a graduate student -- can do an adequate job of teaching science to committed students, it's hard for such schools to get young people interested in science in the first place. You can learn science that way, but if you have a class of 25 taught by a full professor, you have a better chance of getting an uncommitted student excited about science," the president states in a column carried by newspapers acrossthe United States.
Nationally, the percentage of students interested in a science major fell from 13% to 8% between 1975 and 1984, but has remained constant -- around 28% -- at the top liberal arts colleges, Bottoms notes. While a third of the articles in scientific journals authored by liberal arts professors are co-authored by their undergraduate students, that figure is less than 1% at major research universities.
"Advisers can tell students that the pursuit of science is a noble one, as generations since the Renaissance have believed," DePauw's president says. "Colleges can stress through their admissions literature the beauties of the scientific method and experimentation -- the beauty of the discipline required to understand a complex equation or a lengthy experimental process. We can tell students that majoring in science is not just a convenient way to enter medical school but an end in itself: a discipline as well worth pursuing as psychology and communications and economics."
Bottoms concludes, "If these attitudes are changed, we will not have to wake up in another 30 years to find that our scientists have disappeared completely."Back