Where have all the brainiacs gone? Ph.D. dearth may stymie small tech

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PARIS, Sept. 4, 2002 — University students around the world seem to be snubbing science — a worrying trend for small tech businesses.

In France, undergraduate science programs have seen a 24 percent drop in student bodies since 1995. “Staff shortages are already being felt in some clean rooms,” noted Roger Maynard of the French Ministry of Research.

The problem is an international one. According to a report released by the U.S. National Science Foundation earlier this year, bachelor degrees in science and engineering represented 35.2 percent of all degrees earned in 1966, compared with 32.6 percent in 1998. The proportion of graduate degrees dropped from 29.2 percent to 21.7 percent in the same period.

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Germany has seen enrollment plunge. “Since the beginning of the 1990s, we have seen around 50 percent drops in enrollment for physics, chemistry and electrical engineering,” said Alfred Forchel, a physics professor at the Julius-Maximilians University in Wuerzburg, Germany.

Even countries in Asia, where science studies have traditionally been championed, are experiencing slumps. During the 2002 nationwide college-entrance exam tests in South Korea, only a quarter of candidates registered for science and engineering sections. That was down from 42 percent in 1998.

These numbers worry people like Ramon Compano, of the European Commission’s nanotechnology division. “You don’t only need money, you need people,” he said. “You can compare the budgets being devoted to nanotech all you want, but in the end, people will be doing the work and making the discoveries.”

Businesspeople echo these concerns, even though staffing shortages are not generally evident today. “Because the MEMS business has shrunk, a lot of people are available these days,” said Joe Fragala, director of microfabrication and MEMS for NanoInk Inc. in Chicago. However, only two years ago, Fragala was hiring foreign candidates and pulling people out of retirement because he couldn’t find enough process engineers for his clean rooms, so he appreciates the seriousness of the enrollment decline.

“MEMS will continue to grow and two years from now, I’m sure there will be another shortage,” he said. “I’m very concerned because you can’t grow a business unless you have qualified people.”

The enrollment decline threatens development of small tech largely because of time investments required. It takes around 10 years to get a Ph.D. This year’s freshmen undergraduates who go the science Ph.D. route won’t be on the job market until around 2012.

Yet the small tech job market is expected to evolve more briskly. Glocap Tech is a recruiting firm that specializes in small tech. Partner Jason Finkelstein said hiring isn’t a problem just yet, but that’s likely to change once the nanotech industry takes off. “There is no crunch right now, but when we get to the point where there is volume hiring, there very well could be.”

It’s not easy to pinpoint why students are turning up their noses at these disciplines. Research conducted within the European Union showed many young people felt the “hard” sciences were difficult and required more work than other areas of study. “Also, the dot-coms gave young people the impression that they could become a millionaire quickly by getting into software or computer-related fields,” Compano said. “They don’t see that possibility with a career in science.”

Legislators are taking note and some are even taking action. At a European Council meeting in Barcelona this year, EU representatives cited recruitment in science and technology fields as one of the top educational priorities facing Europe. In early July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Technology Talent Act, a plan to provide nearly $400 million in grants to encourage more college students to study math, science and engineering.

Elsewhere, individual universities are taking their own initiatives. Julius-Maximilians University embarked on a plan to jump-start interest in sciences by marketing them better. The university launched a new degree in nanoengineering, which lured 50 students the first year and double that the second. “Nanotechnology is an attractive word to high school students,” Forchel explained. “It doesn’t sound as difficult as physics, even though in the end they will have to make similar intellectual efforts.”

These efforts are bearing fruit, with the size of science freshman classes once again on the rise. “To attract high school students you have to present things that they can perceive as new and cutting edge,” he said. “In a way, you have to keep creating new degrees, new products — even if they are never totally new.”


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