College acceptance season has arrived, and with it comes a predictable cloud of anxiety. Only nowadays, high school seniors must consider not just their choice of college but the jobless world that awaits once they have a degree. In a global economy that will, in all likelihood, continue to limp rather than sprint ahead, students need to think of the global marketplace and the need to be literate both in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and in the languages and cultures outside the United States that are likely to provide career opportunities.
A greater development of STEM skills among students is commonly spoken of as though it could solve all of America’s problems — social, economic and technological. And yet for students studying in those fields, there are no guarantees they will be rewarded. A study by Science magazine and its parent association, the American Association for Advancement of Science, reported that unemployment rates for postdoctoral fellows increased from 2 percent in 2010 to 10 percent in 2012 and that only 20 percent of those who held Ph.D.s moved into tenure-track jobs in academia. A report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) noted a slightly better but still low number (26 percent) for biomedical Ph.D.s securing tenure-track positions. Funding for STEM fields through the NIH or the National Science Foundation (NSF) and corporate or private foundations has shown a downward trend that mirrors the rise in unemployment, and there are few who think the 1990s heyday of doubling the NIH budget will return anytime soon. Such forecasts are bolstered by assessments like Battelle’s 2013 Global R&D Funding Forecast and the NSF’s federal R&D report, which underscore the fact that U.S. investment in research and development is on the wane.
However, R&D spending is on the rise outside the United States, most notably in Asia. China plans to invest $1.7 trillion in targeted research fields, including biotechnology, information technology and alternative and environmentally responsible energy, according to Reuters. This represents a $22.9 billion increase from 2013. At home as well as abroad, the number of science Ph.D.s finding employment in alternative fields —ranging from technical writing and illustration to patent and environmental law, science management and policy, venture capital, economics and advertising — has doubled from 2010 to 2012. While efforts to reinvigorate R&D should without a doubt be strongly supported here at home, we in academia need to be looking to how to best train young people for such integrated, multidisciplinary jobs, not just in San Jose and Boston but also in São Paulo and Beijing.
In decades past, researchers worked in nationally defined silos and disseminated their final product using a highly specialized vocabulary that transcended national borders. That is no longer the case. Our research efforts are now truly multinational, with common understanding critical to the creation of the research itself in all steps of the work.
Despite increasing opportunities in science abroad, how we educate students to conduct research and learn about the world in which that research is done remain separate realms. Few college graduates of any major could conduct research or formulate scientific policy in a second language. In this new world, our scientists need better language fluency and cultural understanding, just as our political science majors need more science. From coast to coast, universities invest in STEM fields while cutting foreign language and anthropology offerings, intellectual pursuits crucial to functioning in a global environment. Such shortsighted policies may end up making American STEM graduates less competitive, not more.
English may be the language of science, but it is not the language of understanding the social and cultural ramifications of pushing back scientific frontiers.
Also, college graduates will increasingly compete in a global workforce that demands a sophisticated social scientific and humanistic understanding of how science functions outside the laboratory, hospital or collider. English may be, at least for now, the language of science, but it is not the language of government policy or of understanding the social and cultural ramifications of pushing back scientific, technological and computational frontiers. Conversely, humanities majors need to know the fundamentals of the sciences that often drive economic and cultural reform.
This is not to argue that students with neither love nor aptitude for science should pursue such areas of study but rather that all students must understand science and in multiple contexts. Artists, humanists and scientists of all kinds must learn side by side to train a new generation of graduates who can function as linguistic, cultural and disciplinary translators, whether in a government office, a lab, a museum or a studio. The future — of STEM, of the liberal arts and of the U.S. workforce — belongs to students both scientifically literate and intimately familiar with the other parts of the world.
Perhaps, as we look to the future, we should keep in mind a cautionary tale from the history of medicine: the deadly English sweat, which mystified the British Isles in the 15th and 16th centuries. “Merry at breakfast, dead by noon” is how the writer Hilary Mantel described those afflicted by the disease. Had the theories of French surgeon Ambroise Paré, who suspected outside vectors of transmission for the disease, been known to the English crown, many in the Tudor court may have been spared. Thus biology in the context of environmental science could have changed history. Even in the 21st century, historians and physicians, all too often trained in entirely disparate worlds, have failed to identify the epidemic’s origins. We can be certain that future challenges will prove no less refractory if we continue to ignore the lesson.