31 August, 2005

The demographics of scientists

There was some talk at the mailing list for Bede's Journal that European universities are in decline, especially as regards the "hard" sciences. The interesting part, which I'm going to quote below (minus the names of the participants, although you can probably guess mine), discussed the demographics of graduate students in these fields. What really struck me is how people from different parts of Europe were reporting the same phenomenon I've observed in the US.

I think you have sometimes said something about the decline of universities in Europe; or perhaps it was that getting a masters degree is more easy in UK than in USA. At least I remember reading from an article that British universities have problems in attracting post-graduate students for "hard sciences" such as physics as people rather choose something more trendy to study. I am correct?



We have the same trouble in the US with attracting people to the "hard sciences". A very large portion of our math and science students are from abroad. When I was a grad student (until the past May) a large number of our students were from Taiwan and China. In some cases there's even a preference for foreigners; certainly ... at some research universities there is an overrepresentation of foreigners...

At my university, for example, my research group had one professor from Austria (naturalized US citizen), one from S. Korea (naturalized US citizen), one from Hungary (will probably acquire US citizenship), one from Russia (naturalized US citizen), and one US-born, "Anglo-American". I was further taught by two S. Koreans, one Swiss, and three Americans (one of whom was African-American, aka black). Of the other professors, there is a large group of Russians, several Chinese, a substantial number of Brits (!), an Italian, two or three Africans (not African-Americans), and a handful of Japanese and Filipinos. There are a few Americans.

We could have been unusual for a research university, but we're in the south (that backwards parts of the US that hates immigrants, according to popular media in this country and abroad) and when I went to computer algebra conferences, other universities seemed even less populated with US-born citizens. I think that, if we *were* unusual for a research university, it was that our math department wasn't completely foreign-born. ;-)

Now I'm at a teaching university, a small place with less than 60 faculty I think, and the professors are almost all US-born. One of the English professors is a Brit, though, and quite proud of it, might I add :-)

Oh -- I should add that many of these foreign-born math students are educated at the cost of the US taxpayer, either directly (State Department scholarships) or indirectly (a professor with an NSF grant hires him/her as a research assistant).



I have probably said all those things. A Masters in the UK is just a one year course rather than two (IIRC) in the US. In the UK we are finding it hard to fill all the places in hard sciences and several departments have closed. As in the case at Jack's school in the US, much of the slack has been taken up by foreign students.

As for the decline of continental Europe, that is clear to see from all current surveys (for example http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,591-1343946,00.html). Given that the German universities dominated once upon a time, that the Italians are the oldest of all and Paris was more important than the Vatican, it is a bit of a come down. Nationalisation, I feel, is the main reason for the decline as this leads inevitably to the decline of efficiency, standards and innovation (as every other nationalised industry has demonstrated). The UK must keep its universities free
from the government as much as possible.



I have probably said all those things. A Masters in the UK is just a one year course rather than two (IIRC) in the US. In the UK we are
I study at a relatively new Finnish university. Finnish masters degree is a two year course. (Bachelors degree takes three years.) Of course, if you are hardworking, you can do it in a year but that rarely happens.
finding it hard to fill all the places in hard sciences and several departments have closed. As in the case at Jack's school in the US, much of the slack has been taken up by foreign students.
A friend of mine said the same thing about Finnish universities: it is difficult to get competent graduate students let alone post-graduate students for physics for example. (He studies at the oldest university in Finland.)

The reason I asked the original question is that I recently saw people complaining on slasdot.org how W is destroying American universities. I immedetially thought European universities that should flourish under the protecing hand of European secularism...



You think US universities aren't in decline, guess again. I think decline is generally the order of the day everywhere.



I study at a relatively new Finnish university. Finnish masters degree is a two year course. (Bachelors degree takes three years.) Of course, if you are hardworking, you can do it in a year but that rarely happens.
Same thing here in the Netherlands, although the duration of the master's programme can vary from one year (in the humanities) to two years (in mathematics, natural sciences, and at the technical universities). The bachelor-master system has only been introduced here three years ago; when I've graduated I will be part of the last generation that still call themselves "drs. ", where "drs." (equivalent to MSc) stands for "doctorandus", "he who is to become a doctor". The decision to implement the bachelor-master system here has the side effect that graduated Dutchmen can no longer be believed by foreigners to have multiple "dr." (PhD) titles...

finding it hard to fill all the places in hard sciences and several departments have closed. As in the case at Jack's school in the US, much of the slack has been taken up by foreign students.
A friend of mine said the same thing about Finnish universities: it is difficult to get competent graduate students let alone post-graduate students for physics for example. (He studies at the oldest university in Finland.)
Seems there's not much difference with the Dutch situation.

The reason I asked the original question is that I recently saw people complaining on slasdot.org how W is destroying American universities. I immedetially thought European universities that should flourish under the protecing hand of European secularism...
I was just reading the Slashdot discussion you're probably referring to. It's pretty sad how easily people are moderated +5 Insightful for quoting Thomas Paine to prove that Christianity caused the decline of the western world or for making such comments as:
"America is at a cross-roads of sorts. It can choose to be The Christian Republic of America or the United States of America."

"The real intended role of monestaries was to keep anyone remotely intelligent away from the general public where he might go starting trouble by speaking out against the church. (...) Newton, Darwin, and Galileo didn't have the *choice* to reject Christianity."
There is of course truth in their claim that certain religious groups in the US abuse their power to try to control science. But it is nonsense to claim that this is the major reason, or even any significant reason at all, for the decline of science and technology. In the Netherlands, there is no such influence on science by religious organisations (we do have two universities that are nominally Catholic and one that is officially Reformed, but the practice of science at all universities is completely secular). Yet there is no reason to think science is on a higher level, or has substantially more freedom, than in more religious countries. There is a general feeling that a decline has been going on in academia for many years. There are no Dutch universities in the top 50 from The Times that James linked to, and most of the universities on that list are in the US.

4 comments:

qkl said...

If I understand well the text, the hard sciences are on a downfall because there are less teachers and students going in these domains, except in the USA because there is an influx of foreign teachers?

jack perry said...

Hi,

Sorry for a long reply, but I think it's necessary to clarify.

The cause of a decline in the hard sciences (if indeed there is a decline) is unclear. The symptom (not the cause) is the shortage of teachers and students in these domains. Even in America, this shortage is severe, and of course it would make a decline all the worse: we can't produce mathematicians without teachers of mathematics.

To hear American mathematicians speak, there has never been a strong American school of mathematics; our mathematics has always been built from foreign students.

I'm not sure that's actually true; after all, it was Americans who developed linear programming, who helped lead the way in computer science, etc. -- and many of the most famous names in these fields were not European immigrants. Nor am I sure that European mathematics per se is any less brilliant than it's ever been. In computer algebra for example the Europeans have been deliberately trying to leapfrog the US (or so I'm told). Unfortunately, the Europeans' fantastic academic achievement (there are many truly great computer algebraists in Europe) has translated into zero commercial achievement: the major software packages are American (Mathematica) and Canadian (Maple).

However, America has plenty of native-born biologists, plenty of doctors and plenty of people in medical research, if not in nursing. So I'm not sure I swallow this idea of a decline in the hard sciences generally.

It is true, however, that there are not very many American-born mathematicians these days, and that many of our graduate students and professors were born abroad, perhaps even most. Some of this can be attributed to government policy (strange funding choices), some to American culture (fascination with technological gadgets, impatience with the intricacies of real science), some with the inevitable consequences of our economy (why work as a mathematician when you can be a much higher-paid engineer, businessman, doctor, or lawyer).

Whatever the case, and for whatever reason, most of the foreigners who come to America as mathematicians decide that they want to stay here permanently. This makes things hard employment-wise for the American-born mathematicians who want employment, like myself. Of course, I would have had an advantage with NSA, but for my Russian wife.

In Europe, the problem is much worse: perhaps because the foreigners who go to study in Europe either don't want to stay, or can't. Most European countries, require that employers give preference to European citizens. That includes the universities, so the foreigners can't pick up the slack. Indeed, French math departments are generally staffed only by French mathematicians, Italian math departments only by Italian mathematiciains, etc.

Perhaps the solution is simply that while the rest of the world was happily ignorant until the end of World War II, we are now seeing a huge investment by the rest of the world in education and research. In such a case, one would expect non-European universities to catch up and sometimes leapfrog European universities in quality. American universities, having no legal barriers to employment, would acquire the world's best researchers, and would thus remain on top.

But personally I think that Western culture (television especially) is indeed contributing to a decline in the hard sciences.

I hope this makes sense; sorry again if it's so long...

qkl said...

It does make sense and interesting thing aren't too long :}

Sociologists should try to find why this happens.

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