Rachel Schnur, of the Bronx, wants to be a homegrown scientist. But the Yeshiva University biomedical sciences student is feeling awfully lonely. Science isn’t a popular career path – especially for students who want to stay in New York.
“I know a lot of people don’t even consider it,” she said.
Schnur isn’t the only one worried about the state of America’s science education. The Obama administration has called for tripling the number of science fellowships in graduate education in the 2010 budget to draw more students into the field.
Push for Fellowships
Though the fellowships would be national in nature and awarded by the National Science Foundation, New York area professors and students said the extra funding could give a boost to local science education.
“That would be very helpful,” said Subrata Saha, the director of the Biomedical Engineering Program at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.
Saha said there is a demand for more funding for science programs in New York’s universities.
The only local school that makes it on the list of 20 best biological science universities nationwide is Columbia University. It tied for 15th place in the ranking list compiled by U.S. News and World Report. Among chemistry and physics programs, Columbia places 11th, again as the only school in the Empire State to make the Top 20.
California, with Stanford University and CalTech, and Massachusetts, with Harvard and MIT, still outpace New York in science education.
Timothy Short, an associate professor of biology at Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said making more grants available is crucial for the success of science education in New York.
“In our department, we don’t have enough new graduate students coming in to replace the ones leaving,” he said, noting there aren’t enough fellowships to give to new students.
Finding money for studies, he said, is “extremely difficult.”
Only 1 in 10 applicants get funding from the National Science Foundation, Short noted. Others have to rely on institutional aid, or grants from smaller foundations.
If science students can’t find funding, they probably won’t enroll. Unlike some other fields, practically nobody pays their own way through their graduate-level science education, Short said.
Funding is necessary because students can’t expect to be making huge salaries once they graduate, said David M. Holland, professor of mathematics and director of the Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science at New York University.
According to job listing site Indeed.com, the average scientist in New York earns $90,000 per year – 21 percent higher than the nationwide average salary of $74,000. By comparison, the median wage for lawyers in New York is $115,000. Lawyers also have more future earning potential than scientists, according to the site’s statistics.
“You’re not in science for the money,” Holland said.
Schnur agreed. “You go in because you love it.”
But even the strongest love won’t help you study if there isn’t any money available. If the country doesn’t invest in science education, many promising would-be scientists will turn to other professions, Schnur said.
Brain Drain Fear
“We are not going to go into a field where we see no future,” she said. “We lose too many bright minds that way.”
The percentage of Gross Domestic Product that is used for funding physical, mathematical and engineering sciences has declined for three decades, according to the 2010 federal budget proposal.
“It’s very, very hard,” said Schnur about the process. She said she is constantly applying for grants and fellowships so that she can keep studying.
“Unless people are paid to do PhD’s, it will not happen,” Holland said.
New York area professors and students agree that funding scientific study is an investment with a crucial payoff.
“People here are coming up with innovative ideas that will change the society,” said Ivan Corwin, a mathematics students at New York University.
“It’s a very good investment compared to their future contribution,” Saha said.