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Laws of Physics Under Attack by Economics

Geoffrey Orsak

December 2, 2011

3 Min Read
Laws of Physics Under Attack by Economics

We continue to hear from nearly every leader in this country that an internationally competitive STEM education pipeline is critical to the economic security of the US. Investment in STEM programs at all levels is a stated national priority. But this vital education and economic policy objective has slammed into an economic headwind that apparently makes rational budgeting a political impossibility.

Just recently, the body that oversees public higher education in Texas voted to close six undergraduate physics programs in the state. Sadly, these programs provided critical opportunities in science to the rapidly growing minority populations. These institutions included the two largest historically black colleges and universities, Texas Southern University and Prairie View A&M University, along with Hispanic-serving institutions like the University of Texas at Brownsville.

Oddly, science and engineering play an extraordinarily important role in this state, which is home to the Johnson Space Center, telecommunications giants like AT&T, national security companies such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, semiconductor history makers like Texas Instruments, energy leaders like Exxon Mobil, and a rapidly expanding biotechnology sector anchored by the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world. In a part of our country with so much at stake in having a robust and diverse science and engineering pipeline, cutting any science program seems "penny wise and pound foolish."

But in a spirit of efficiency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has set the minimum threshold for program survival to 25 students graduating in a five-year window. You might just be thinking, "Well, let's be honest. If they can't meet this low graduation number, they ought to be closed." However, according to the American Physical Society, if this threshold were applied to all physics programs in the country, 526 of the 760 would have to shut down. And tragically, only two physics programs from the nation's 34 HBCUs would still be open.

With so much concern over the cost of higher education, this is a trend that just might be catching on. According to numerous reports, Governor Rick Scott of Florida is already considering a similar move. Is your cash-strapped state far behind?

The production of physics degrees is but one reason to maintain the existence of physics programs. Even with the longstanding federal funding for physics programs, our country has never produced much more than 6,000 physics graduates a year. (More typically, it is between 4,000 and 5,000.) Yet the entire enterprise of modern science, engineering, and medicine requires strong and available physics departments to teach the extensive physics curricula required by nearly every technical discipline. As an academic dean, my firm belief is that it will be extremely difficult to attract highly qualified physics instructors to universities that don't offer physics degrees, which inevitably will disproportionately harm minority students we work so hard to recruit. And the impact on high school science education might be just as significant. Teachers today are increasingly required to hold a degree in the discipline they teach. How will we fill the shortage of high school physics teachers if states across the nation follow the lead of Texas?

More than 50 years ago, Sputnik raised the specter that our nation's poor science and engineering education was putting our country at risk. We responded swiftly with the National Defense Education Act. Today, with intellectual might arguably more important than military might, this disturbing policy action should concern all of us.

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