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Is less science education more?

The conventional wisdom these days is that governments should put more money into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. But a new study suggests that better education does not more scientists make.

The research was led by B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University in Washington, DC and Harold Salzmann of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It analyzed several longitudinal data sets to determine how many students were staying in STEM fields between secondary school, college and their careers.

Generally, it’s thought that poor incentives have caused many students to leave these fields in recent years, but Lowell et al. found quite the opposite. The number of secondary school students who went on to study STEM fields was relatively unchanged between 1972-1977 and 2000-2005. And students who stayed in STEM fields in college were actually more likely to go on to careers in research in the 1997-2000 time frame than they were in 1977-1980.

But it wasn’t all good news. The study found that the most talented STEM students were actually less likely to stay in science throughout their career.

The study’s conclusion? Just because you put more money into educating science students doesn’t mean you’ll end up with more scientists. In fact forces in the job market might be more important. The authors cite anecdotal evidence that suggests many top science students are being lured into other more lucrative careers. The inference here, I suppose, is that governments should think about incentives for retaining working scientists, in addition to worrying about getting young people into STEM fields.

The study’s evidence is interesting though not definitive. Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing counterpoint to the chorus calling for ever more education in the sciences. There’s a raging discussion about it all over on Slashdot.


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    Kim Hosey (AZ Writer) said:

    That’s really interesting. I know I personally had (partly because I and my parents sought out additional avenues) an excellent background in science, math and technology especially. But I’d be one of those who didn’t stay with it — I began college as a bioengineering major, and became a journalist.

    I’d say either way the important thing is to have education that teaches students to think critically and logically. That can be something that’s beefed up across the board, I should think.

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