Engineers should talk up the profession

A recent poll provides an industrial perspective and points up its troubling implications. As many universities are discovering, science and technology aren’t as popular as they once were. It's your job to spread the word, however small.

By Mike Spear, editor at large, Hertfordshire, U.K.

As many universities are discovering, science and technology aren’t as popular as they once were. While enrolment figures for disciplines like chemical engineering and chemistry remain relatively buoyant (CP, April, p. 66), there is a growing awareness that all isn’t well within the scientific academic community. Results of a poll conducted by International Communications Research, Media, Pa., on behalf of Bayer, Pittsburgh, Pa. and Leverkusen, Germany, and released last month provide an industrial perspective on the issue and point up its troubling implications.

Published as “The Bayer Facts of Science Education XII: CEOs on STEM Diversity,” the poll highlights the concerns of 100 CEOs of the fastest growing U.S. science and technology companies. Nearly four out of five of these executives from emerging Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) firms think the nation is in danger of losing its global predominance in science and technology because of a potential shortfall in the number of scientists and engineers coming out of universities. The poll particularly delves into the part that women and under-represented minorities might play.

The “Bayer Facts” survey series is part of the corporation’s Making Science Make Sense (MSMS) program, aimed at advancing science literacy across the country “through hands-on, inquiry-based science learning, employee volunteerism and public education.” Currently 12 Bayer sites in the U.S. run their own local MSMS programs, involving more than 1,000 employees as volunteers. All, in their own way, aim to make science more popular.

But the need to boost interest in science and engineering is not just a U.S. problem. Most western industrialized nations are experiencing the same difficulties in attracting their brightest students into science and engineering. According to Greg Lewin, the new president of the U.K.’s Institution of Chemical Engineers (I.Chem.E.), “that’s where we have to get our act together.” As president of Shell Global Solutions, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Houston, Texas, he obviously has an international perspective on the issues, as shown in a recent interview with I.Chem.E.’s The Chemical Engineer: “The boundaries are rapidly disappearing,” he says, “in terms of geography, in terms of professional sectors, and the boundary between us [as chemical engineers] and society at large must disappear also. It is not society’s problem that they don’t understand the potential of our contribution, it is our problem to address.”

Sometimes though, it can seem just too big a problem — or, as with nanotechnology, too small. In researching “Nanotechnology raises big concerns,” p. TK, it soon became apparent to me that there is a popular view of nanotechnology that at times bears little resemblance to the scientific and engineering view. This popular, or perhaps that should be populist, image is the one that surfaces in the media under lurid headlines such as that of a May BBC news report: “Toxic warnings for nano industry.” That story actually covered the perfectly sensible call by the Royal Society, the U.K.’s principal scientific body, for more public information on the testing of products containing nanoparticles.

As in Germany and the U.S., with their respective NanoCare and ICON nanotechnology databases, the worldwide science and engineering communities generally are responding to these calls for more information in the way they know best — through thorough research and collection and examination of all available evidence. But this isn’t  something that can be done overnight, unlike writing newspaper headlines. The starting point for that ICON database, for example, was a literature search of 22,000 scientific papers flagged through keyword searches on terms like nanotubes and nanoparticles — a task that took six months for Tim Borges, the toxicologist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn., in charge of gathering the data. “Originally, I don’t think they envisioned how much data was out there,” he reflected at the time.

That was a couple of years ago and the database has now evolved into a working tool to be used as much by the public as by scientists. But, as Lewin suggests, it’s the scientists and engineers that have the problem of persuading the public — and that includes headline writers — to make the effort to better understand science and technology. That not only should encourage a more-balanced perspective but also more interest in technical careers. 

Mike Spear, editor at large, Hertfordshire, U.K.