25 December 2006

On Space Exploration- with a taste of earthly sentiment

"You realize that...on that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you- all of history and music and poetry and art...on that little spot you can cover with your thumb..." Apollo Astronaut "Rusty" Schweickart

I often wonder about the value of space exploration, as I'm sure do many. I have not examined the subject in depth, but it has been lingering on the edge of my mind as I have continued to invest more and more time in science.

At what point does space exploration benefit science?
What are our main objectives in such endeavours?
Is space really the next frontier, or rather a whole new ball game?
Is it worth it?

Richard Feynman in his video-recorded interview turned book "The pleasure of finding things out" (1) criticises space exploration claiming that no significant scientific breakthrough has ever come from our presence in space. Some have contended this, and I have not taken the time to investigate particular instances. (please feel free to give any cases you can think of) Still, off hand, I can think of no great scientific discovery that would not have come about without our presence in space. So what is the benefit?

Clearly communications satellites have revolutionized modern daily life in developed countries and thus have driven globalization. Could we have ever known during the space race of the '60's that such technology would develop? We did not have to. We only needed to predict that if the tools were provided, great technologies would be developed. But here we are considering unmanned crafts. What tools are being acquired by way of manned space exploration?

As those driving the space race of the '60's may not have even been able to predict what tools would be provided as a result of their efforts; as the many similar cases of exploration in the past with no prediction as to future benefits, perhaps we need to keep exploring, as we, mankind, always have. The story goes like this:
We wondered what was outside of the cave and we took a look. We then became curious as to what lay beyond that hill, then over those mountains, then over the sea...and now we must head Up! But, something is wrong here.

First, this story is eurocentric. For example, in the sequence of exploration we habitually count the "discovery of the new world". Yet, I need not point out that humans, animals, and other living organisms counted the "new world" as their home long before it's "discovery". It might be argued that the true discovery was when the area was first called home. But all parts of earth have been called home (maybe not explicitly by trees and company) since not long after there were humans, animal and other living organisms. Yet the same cannot be said for locations of space.

Living organisms, especially humans, are not meant to be in space. That is not to say that we should never go there, rather, it's simply not a good place to live. As they say in real-estate: it's about location, location, location...and who is going to pick a location where there is nothing to eat, drink, or even breath!

Space is not the next frontier. At least not like any of the frontiers we have seen before. Life is meant to be on earth, and we, living beings, have been exploring places on earth. Sure we have started to explore the deep seas, where our kind is not meant to live. But how many manned missions have you seen to the depths of the ocean? How much public demand have we seen for exploring the deep blue? The answer is not much. Why then have we turned our sights upward? Why do 74% of Americans agree that the "U.S. should continue the manned space shuttle program?" (2) Are we giving up on our little blue home?!

If this is the case, are we looking to move? Perhaps this is our main objective in manned space missions. Are we recognizing that we are treating our little blue home like a frat house and we need to cut our losses and find a new place to live? Problem- the market is not so hot right now and there is no up-swing in sight. No one is selling.

Are we really considering living on the moon? I can think of no other reason for President Bush's push to re-explore a place we have already been. I mean was he like AWOL during the '60's or something...Oh, right.

I am not claiming that all space exploration should be discontinued. In fact I would much sooner suggest cutting funding from defense -US spending in the range of $520 billion, over NASA -~$30 billion.(3) While it is true that $30 billion allocated differently would make a real difference in the fight against hunger and disease, we could make the choice to find that money in our budget if we really wanted. I do think that we need to keep our eye on realistic accomplishments and benefits of our space exploration. Unmanned space endeavours are unarguably less expensive, less dangerous, and more productive than manned missions. The value of having localized human control does not outweigh the burden of man in space. Again, what are the benefits?

We must ask ourselves if our value for our little blue home would be so great without having ever seen it from above?

"...the beauty of the planet has been an epiphany eliciting deep concern for earth's health, a visceral understanding of human 'oneness,' and clarity about the interconnectedness of things. Unlike those of us here among the trees, they have seen the forest.... Many consider the Apollo images invaluable to the ecological movement's jump start in the 1970's."(4)

But has our space adventures made us realize how small our home really is, then led us to think that we can find another. Perhaps we are forgetting how big a place space really is. Sure, we have shown that we can go to the moon, a mere 238,856 miles (on average), a trip of about three days. (5) But the moon isn't really the most comfortable place to live. So we ask our real estate agent about the reddish planet. It will take a bit longer to travel the 48,000,000 miles (6) but we're humans, we can take it, right guys? Yet, Mars is even less hopeful as a comfortable new home. So we check out the rest of the planets revolving our sun and become even more discouraged about real estate prospectives. The only chance we have to find a comfy new planet is to check out new neighborhoods around other stars. Here is were we REALLY start to get discouraged. The next closest neighborhood, the three stars of the Alpha Centouri system, which we're not even sure have any planets available, is 4.36 light-years away- that's 25,630,259,200,000 miles- not a trip I want to take without a pit-stop. (7)

My point is we have nowhere to go. We can play in our own neighborhood, even run around in the adjacent yards, for life is no fun without a little adventure and we might even learn some valuable lessons as we grow. But after the play, when mom calls us home for dinner hopefully we will realize that mom's cooking will always be the best and she will only feed us if we clean up our room and straighten the house. If we want to eat, we better do our choirs...then we can go play some more.

What do you think the benefit of space exploration is?

(1) http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6586235597476141009
(4) Our expanded View. Seed Magazine, December 2006


Anonymous said...

well, I think there are lots of benefits to unmanned (personed) space exploration. Even by sending people out to space too...just b/c we haven't hit the goldmine yet, there's something out there. I dunno, my dreams about going off into space were quite thrilling.

Jason said...

Nice blog, Jack! I'm inclined to agree that fixing some of the persistent social problems here on earth ought to be a higher priority than manned space exploration, but just to play devils advocate...

By my math (30 Billion/300 Million), NASA's budget works out to $100 per American per year (with the rich, of course, rightfully paying a great share of this). I know I personally spend more than $100 per year on entertainment (music, concerts, movies, etc). What if, regardless of scientific value, going into space is a good use of money because it's entertaining? As anon said, it lets us dream. Maybe that's a good reason for spending the money in and of itself.

hope all's well in NY, man.

Tim said...


First, this is a great topic that NEEDS to be discussed by people and put into public minds. However, I am weary of non-scientists adding their own two cents because people always have their opinions, not always with the knowledge necessary to have any significant value. In any event, hopefully people will have open minds to be edjamacated by people who are in the field.

Now, my two cents. I agree whole-heartedly in the space program. Let me re-phrase that. I agree with the ideal of the space program, whole-heartedly. NASA is run by idiots, there is no question about that. But then again, the US is run by an idiot. Here's why I think we need a space program (not necessarily "manned"). We need to get off this rock. The human race is a blip in the existence of the solar system. But, the earth will not be habitable forever. Further more, we are destroying it more and more everyday. If (big word..."if") the human race is to continue on, we need to know where home is going to be after the earth becomes inhabitable. To do so means we need to explore. I'm weary of saying this because it is parasitic. Well, we've destroyed one place, lets find a new one to destroy. Whether by our own hands or not, the earth will not be liveable one day. That is my 10 century plan of why we need to explore space (I'm thinking 10 centuries down the road). There is also human nature to explore things. For the same reason we climb mountains, and cross oceans. Space is there, and it holds the key to understanding where we came from. We are children of the stars, quite literally. We formed from our own sun. We see no other planets like ours anywhere in sight. Why are we here? For the scientific answer that I hope scientists seek, the answer is "up". This is the 1000 century plan for why we need space exploration...when we can actually talk to god (I'm saying this tongue in cheek).

The bare bones of it is this: There are NO immediate returns to committing billions of dollars to the space program. Even the technological aspects are years down the road. But, as a science, space is not understood, it is unknown. And to me, as a physicist, that is what we are in the business of; knowing. Therefore, I think it pertinent to try to learn more about it. I'm not saying manned space missions are the way to go (as a matter of fact I think it is totally typical of Bush, the wrong move at the wrong time), but I am in favor of our space program as a whole. I think, the "manned" aspect of space exploration is a long term goal by NASA (not Bush actually) to start preparing for the ultimate trip to Mars. Also, outside businesses are throwing their hats in the ring for space exploration. It would look bad for NASA if the guy from Virgin beats them to Mars. Politically, I think this is the reason for manned space missions making a comeback. I think it would be awesome if man made it to Mars. Just the magestic of it is overwhelming to me. Man...on Mars.

Well, this is my two cents, but I'm not a space physicist. I'm just a padawan really. So i wouldn't take what I think too seriously.

Jack Murphy said...

Thanks for your comments!

Tim, first off, Stephen Hawking agrees with you about going elsewhere if we want to survive, but I don't agree. First (because he's smarter than me) Hawking :
"It is important for the human race to spread out into spaced for the survival of the species...Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of."


We only have our own solar system, everything else is way too far away, and the earth is the only planet with the proper distance from the sun to sustain life. Unless we move another planet; we got nothin', babe.

I do agree with Tim and Jason that we do this because it is what humans do. We need to explore, we need to try to figure out why we are here. I also agree that to find out we need to go up. But we also need to remember those are the reasons. We do not get much technological payoff, what we do get is knowledge for knowledge sake.
In that way space exploration is no different than high energy particle physics(cyclotrons, linear accelerators, and such).
But for the science, we usually don’t need humans in space.
Let private explorers take up the task! We should not be embarrassed if private explorers do it; we save money!

Bottom line: The government should put money into the investigation of space in the name of science, but we can (usually) do it with out humans in space.

Billy said...


I like the thoughts, and I like what Tim said in response. I am going to go ahead and say that, to me, as soon as we give up on space exploration, our existence becomes pointless. I think that our existence as human beings, as it stands now, with the knowledge that we have, has no real point in and of itself. I believe that we are left with the search for complete knowledge and the search for some purpose. In my opinion, as soon as we stop this search, we might as well call it quits entirely. Sure, there is a lot to do and a lot of fun to be had just hanging around on good old earth, but is that it? Once we clean up a bit, are we finished? Do we then just hang out and have fun for eternity on earth, with our problems solved, everyone content? I dont think that would do it.

I think that we need to explore and find something else, or at least prove that there is nothing else. We can do this by exploring in many fields- philosophy, the different physical sciences, I particularly like theoretical physics, and exploring the earth, and we also need to do this by exploring space. I dont think that we can cut any field off.

You mentioned the possible lack of any important discoveries to date from space exploration, along with the unlikelihood of finding anything beneficial in space. While this may or may not be true, you can surely agree that almost no discoveries were seen before they were discovered? I think that we must keep searching and improving our human transportation abilities in order to one day explore everything that's out there.
Imagine if we could someday go anywhere at any time we wanted? Now, maybe it is possible to accomplish this through years of theoretical work on earth, but I think history has shown that experiment can not be completely discounted in favor of theory in the field of science.

You also raised the point that we have some cleaning up to do on earth that may be more important than space exploration. I would concede to fixing our problems here on earth first, before then exploring further, but I would much prefer to performing both tasks simultaneously.

I guess, in my search for complete knowledge and purpose, you could also prove to me that there really isnt anything worthwile out there, and that anything that can possible be found is all on earth. If you prove that, then I guess I would halt my case for space (exploration). However, I doubt that can be proven without first exploring all of space.

Just my opinion. So, keep the thoughts coming Jack! And I would suggest one of Brian Greene's books - really thought provoking physics stuff.

Jack Murphy said...

You mean we are not here to serve GOD!!

Fundementally, you can't prove that there is nothing, only that there is something. So yes your case will always be valid, and I agree. There is ALOT worth-while out there, and we should go find it. But in most cases we dont need humans to go do it.
And as far as playing in orbit-I think it should be private money.

But I agree with you billy-boy.

Taimur said...

Fascinating Blog Jack-o.

I've read over all the comments (sometimes skimming), but there is still a chance I will repeat what others may have already said.

Is it worth it?

I think we are all in agreement that space exploration and the study of the great beyond is probably advantageous and amazingly fascinating.
In addition to just knowing "who we, as human race, are" and our capabilites and our instinctual need to explore, I believe the study of space may serve a different, abstract (dare I say spiritual) role.

As Jason and anon mentioned, there is a dream-like quality to it all. To think about what the future and technology may hold in store for us. Getting even further down to the basics, the idea of there being more than just this world.

I personally find it extraordinarily humbling to look up at the night sky on a clear night and realize how small I am. Paradoxically, looking so far away from myself helps me look further within myself. To just ponder the limits, the size, and the life of the universe is, I feel, exhilirating.

And I can guess your response to this will be, but why bother going there and spending all that money when you can do that from the comfort of a nice meadow on a cool clear night?

And the response I can come up with at this moment is: to make it tangible. Placing others, like yourself, out there. To know it exists. It all helps making it more relatable. I'm sure there is more I have to say on this, but my mind is flying off on random tangents.

I respect your views on nature and your great appreciation for this Earth, but I believe that the statements you made about "nowhere to go" and there was no need to send humans out to space were a bit premature.

Sure, there be no place we can go now, with the techonology we have. But who knows? Somewhere down the line (not in our time clearly), it may happen. And there is always a place to start.

I am to also understand that with the push and money and research spent on Space travel, new tools and technologies are unintentionally being created that we are now using in our own daily lives. If I had time right now, I would research this furthur.

On that note, I also realize that a lot of the drive behind the Space program is for our defense department. And I agree that the name of Space exploration should be in name of science.

It is pricey. I think its one of those expenses you just cant hack away at significantly. Ideally, titanium would be dirt cheap and you would be able to buy a Shuttle from your local convenience store. And I doubt there are few individuals out there who have that kind of money and a fascination and interest in Space to fund it privately (also I'm sure the government use the technilogies for themselves and wouldn't want control of space to be privatized). I believe most of that interest is in oil and estates.

Personally speaking, I' believe we could get money from the defense department, but I'm sure there are people out there who would comment that THAT is necessary also.

Bottomline: I like space exploration and I dont like how much it costs, but I can't think of a realistic alternative.

Lin said...

I attended a gathering of "The Grandmothers"in the Catskill Mtns. in 2004. Women elders from the four directions of the planet recgonized by each of their communities as wise women, healers and sages.
What does this have to do with the space issue? They met to discuss the state of the planet and the
dire condition we are in, indeed
speaking of this as the "11th hour"
These native elders came together to offer council. It's time we listened.
The Hopi saw the space stations before they were set out to space
and saw this as one of the
signs of the beginning of the end.
(cluttering up space with our metal debris being the minor issue)
Spending billions on space exploration for entertainment when
we have the not so small issue of
protecting the air we breathe and
water we drink is an unwise and unsound priority in my humble opinion.
Its more of the same masculine,
technology "let's go and conquer another frontier" thinking that
leads to destruction and chaos.
Let the universe be.
The Grandmothers are trying to tell us something. Let's get down to earth here.

Jack Murphy said...

By the way, only a portion of NASA's $30B budget is dedicated to space exploration...we mustn't forget the many other things NASA does, like the global climate modeling and studies that James Hansen does .

Anonymous said...

You asked about science education.
A few months ago I was on a panel with the President of RIT talking about science education and workforce development. In prepearation I read this paper he delivered elsewhere. I would be interested in any comments you or others have on his thoughts about the challenge of India and China devedloping so many engineers and scientists and how we can keep up through diversity

Presentation to the Fortnightly Club
(February 7, 2006)


Albert J. Simone

Rochester Institute of Technology

Table of Contents




The World is Flat 1

Tatung Institute of Technology 2

International and Individual Financial Accounts 2

Misery Index 3

Key Component to Meeting the Challenge 4


International Comparisons 4

New York State and the Nation 5






In what follows, we shall describe some of the key challenges facing the United States at this time. We shall cite some general macro economic statistics which describe the U.S. economy over time and in relationship to other countries. The economic challenges we cite are cause for alarm.

We shall also speak to some of the data which describe the general status of education – at the K through 12 and university levels – in this country. Again, there is a significant case for alarm.

The economic discussion points to a problem that threatens our quality of life, standard of living, and, ultimately, even our democracy. The discussion around education is important because, as I shall argue in a later section of this paper, it is the key to meeting the challenge.

The solution, however, is not just to have more people better educated in particular disciplines. Rather, it is creating a system and changing the culture so that a particular segment of our population – namely, women and minorities (especially women) – become more fully engaged in specific academic disciplines which lead to expertise in particular professions.


The World is Flat

Thomas L. Friedman, in his recent book The World is Flat, describes some challenging and worrisome global activities:

• In 2005, 400,000 American IRS tax returns were prepared in India.

• Indian and Israeli firms are transmitting CAT scans via the Internet to the United States so Americans can get a second opinion from an Indian or Israeli doctor more quickly and cheaply.

• Indian engineers can handle most technical jobs at 1/10 the cost of American engineers.

• Wal-Mart last year imported $18 billion of goods from 5000 Chinese suppliers (who represent 80% of Wal-Mart’s suppliers).

• For American automobile makers, health benefits cost $6,000 per worker if the car is manufactured in the United States. If it is manufactured in Canada, because Canada provides socialized medicine, the cost per worker is $800.

These examples and others that can be readily added, certainly give us pause for thought.

Tatung Institute of Technology

Twenty years ago, I visited, several times, Tatung Institute of Technology (TIT) in Taiwan. There are many interesting similarities between TIT and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). For example, TIT has a totally integrated co-op program. A thriving electronics company, Tatung Industries, has its manufacturing facility right next door to TIT. TIT students work as co-op students at Tatung Industries prior to graduating. After graduation, many of them go to work directly for Tatung Industries.

However, my point in describing TIT is not because it is an institute of technology like RIT, nor because like RIT it has a co-op program. Rather, my point is something very different. Every engineer at TIT is required to be fluent – in terms of reading, writing, and speaking – in four languages: Chinese, English, Japanese, and (at the time) Russian. They also are expected to be reasonably fluent in one other language which, typically, was selected from among German, French, Italian, and Spanish. These engineers, engaged in international competition and thereby competing with American engineers around the world, have the distinct advantage of having language proficiency in the countries in which they are working. With the language proficiency comes a better understanding of the foreign cultures with which they are working, and the history and institutions of those countries. Moreover, it conveys a sense of respect for the people of those countries because they have taken the time to learn the language.

The curriculum at TIT does not leave room (really none) for a study of the humanities, social sciences, and the arts, while American engineers are required to take approximately 50% of their curriculum in these areas. TIT students are clearly narrowly focused. However, I suspect that by now they may also be taking some foundation courses in business administration. What a competitive advantage they would have then: engineering and technology, language and culture, and business. And these are just undergraduate students.

International and Individual Financial Accounts

The January 14-16, 2006 issue of The Economist offers a historical look at the country’s international accounts and individual savings rates. To put them into a comparable context, it looks at these accounts as a percentage of gross domestic product (GPD).

As you recall, the current account balance represents the dollar value of U.S. exports of goods and services minus the dollar value of U.S. imports of goods and services. The U.S. current account balance since 1960, as a percentage of GDP, shows the following:

1960 1%
1970 0
1980 0
1985 -3%
1990 0
2005 -6%
The 2005 deficit in the U.S. current account is a historical record.

Household financial balances are defined as individual disposable income (total income minus income taxes) minus consumer expenditures (this difference is the “household savings” rate). Since 1960, U.S. household balances as a percentage of GDP are:

1960 2%
1970 2%
1980 7%
1985 2%
1990 3%
2005 -4%

The -4% figure means that individual households, on average, are spending 4% more than they are earning through reducing their savings accounts, taking down equity in their homes, or borrowing.

These trends are disturbing to say the least. If they continue, they threaten and will ultimately undermine the American economy. Right now, we are vulnerable to the whims and actions of the international community because of the large negative current account balance. We are also vulnerable to the dire consequences of a major domestic economic or terrorist setback because of the negative saving rate.

Misery Index

The Initial Misery Index was invented by American economists in the 1970’s. It was defined as the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. It was meant to provide a quick gauge of the economic health of the country. You will remember those years of “stagflation”, when both the unemployment and inflation rates were in double digits (along with the interest rate). If we compute the Misery Index historically and bring it to the present, the United States fares pretty well, over time, particularly in comparison with Europe which has experienced extremely high unemployment rates.

Economists at Merrill Lynch have devised a broader internationally focused index as the new “Misery Index”. In addition to the unemployment rate and the inflation rate, this new index also includes the interest rate (defined as the 3-month T-bill rate), the federal budget balance, and the current account balance. These are add-ons. The Index then subtracts GDP growth, since growth in GDP is a positive factor. That is to say, low unemployment, inflation, and interest rates are good and high rates are bad; positive budget and current account balances are good and negative balances are bad; a high GDP growth rate is good and a low rate is bad.

The new Misery Index paints a bleak and threatening picture for the United States when compared with the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and the U.S.). The negative picture is created primarily by the significant deficits the U.S. has in the federal budget and current account balances. Today is in stark contrast to the picture in the 1990’s.

For example, in 1994, the U.S. had the second lowest Misery Index (14) among the G7 countries. Japan was lower at around 6. The other countries in increasing order of misery were:

Germany 19
Canada 20
France 22
Britain 27
Italy 28

In 2005, the U.S. has the largest Index number and is the only country to see a large increase over the 10-year period. Japan showed a slight increase during this period; but it was also coming from the lowest base of all the countries. All the other countries showed significant decreases in Misery.

For example, in increasing order of Misery again, we have:

Japan 6
Canada 7
Great Britain 11
Germany 13
Italy 16
France 17
United States 19

Canada, over the last ten years, has had the biggest reduction in its Misery Index of any G7 economy (from 20 to 7 or a reduction of 13). It is the only country among the G7 running both current account and budget surpluses.

Key Component to Meeting the Challenge

I submit that education, at the K through 12 and university levels, is the key to meeting this global challenge. However, education currently is working against us, both at home and abroad. We turn to this next.


International Comparisons

We are increasingly lagging behind in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) when compared to other countries. For example:

• In recent years, in Japan 66% of undergraduate degrees awarded were in STEM, in China it was 59%, in Taiwan it was 41%, in South Korea it was 33%, and in the United States it was 32%. Specifically in engineering, 46% of China’s degrees are in engineering, 25% of Russia’s degrees are in engineering, and 5% of U. S. degrees are in engineering (Trilogy Publications, 2004).

• Today, the United States ranks 17th in the proportion of the college-age population earning STEM degrees. Several decades ago, we were 3rd.

• The number of high school graduates entering STEM disciplines has been declining in absolute and relative numbers over the past five years. As a consequence, the United States now imports foreign scientists and engineers; specifically, 20% of professional engineers in this country are immigrants.

• Over half of the doctorates awarded by American universities in STEM disciplines are awarded to foreigners.

• In 2003, 2.8 million bachelor’s degrees in STEM were awarded worldwide: 1.2 million to Asian students in Asian countries, 830,000 to students in Europe, and 400,000 to students in the U.S. In 2004, 600,000 engineers graduated from universities in China, 350,000 in India, and 70,000 in the U.S. (“Rising above the Gathering Storm”, National Academy of Science, 2005).

• In the fourth grade, U.S. students score above the international average in math and near first in science. By the eighth grade, they score below the international average in math and only slightly above it in science. By the twelfth grade, U.S. students are near the bottom of a 49-country survey in both math and science, outperforming only Cypress and South Africa.

• U. S. Labor Department statistics tell us that the number of openings annually for information technology and computer science graduates through the year 2012 will be 145,000. However, the number of expected degrees awarded annually is 75,000.

New York State and the Nation

What is happening in New York State mirrors what is happening in the rest of the United States. For example, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in New York State in STEM has been dropping steadily over the past ten years. Specifically, from 1984-85 to 2004-05 (much of the data cited comes from “Regaining New York’s Competitive Edge: Increasing Engineering, Math, and Science Majors”, Commission of Independent Colleges and Universities, January 9, 2006):

• Engineering degrees have declined 36%.
• Mathematics degrees have declined 25%.
• Physical Sciences degrees have declined 33%.
• Only Biological and Biomedical Science degrees have increased (by 4%).

Over the past twenty years in New York State, the number of engineering degrees conferred has dropped, while the portion of international students receiving engineering degrees at all levels has increased. For example, comparing 1984-85 to 2004-05, the number of degrees awarded to international students increased:

• From 6% to 10% at the undergraduate level, from 24% to 27% at the master’s level, and from 46% to 71% at the doctoral level.

The picture remains bleak as we review the results of New York State Regents exams in math and science. Taking the cohort of students who entered kindergarten in 1991-92 and were seniors in 2003-04, we find that:

• 81% sat for the biology exam (that is good).
• 55% took the chemistry exam (not so good).
• 42% took the math B regents exam (worst yet).
• 20% took the physics regents exam (worst of all).

Moreover, of these students, only 15% scored more than 84 on the chemistry exam, 27% on the math exam, and 23% on the physics exam. In effect, a small number of students sit for these key exams. Moreover, a small percentage of those who do sit do well. Examining this situation across the United States, it is estimated that less than 15% of U.S. students have the prerequisites to pursue STEM degrees in college.

If underlying conditions do not change and current trends persist, the national demographics exacerbate the program tremendously. For example, it is estimated that somewhere in the years 2040 to 2050, minority populations will represent a majority of the total U.S. population, both in school and post K-12. Hispanics will lead the way at 30% of the minority population, followed by African Americans at about 15% - 17% of the population. If we take a look at African American and Hispanic American students today, we find that 39% of the U.S. high school population is made up of African Americans and Hispanics. Yet, today, this population represents only 6% of the STEM workforce and only 7% of undergraduate and graduate degrees are awarded in STEM disciplines.


The heading for this section is the title of the lead article and cover page of the most recent issue of Business Week (Baker S. and Leak B., “Math Will Rock Your World”, January 23, 2006, iss. 3968, p. 54 ff.). Quoting from this article:

“The world is moving into a new age of numbers. Partnerships between mathematicians and computer scientists are bulling into whole new domains of business and imposing the efficiencies of math. This has happened before. In past decades, the marriage of higher math and computer modeling transformed science and engineering. Quants turned business finance upside down a generation ago. Data miners plucked useful nuggets from vast consumer and business databases. But just look where the mathematicians are now. They are helping to map out advertising campaigns. They are changing the nature of research in newsrooms and in biology labs, and they are enabling marketers to forge new 1-1 relationships with customers. As this occurs, more of the economy falls into the realm of numbers. Says James R. Schatz, Chief of the Mathematics Research Group of the National Security Agency (NSA): ‘There has never been a better time to be a mathematician.’”

The article goes on to say:

“This mathematical modeling of humanity promises to be one of the great undertakings of the 21st Century. It will grow in scope to include much of the physical world as mathematicians get their hands on new flows of data, from atmospheric sensors to the feeds from millions of security cameras. It’s a parallel world that is taking shape, a laboratory for innovation and discovery composed of numbers, vectors, and algorithms.”

I am taking time to speak to math as a specific STEM discipline for two reasons. First, math provides the foundation and is the fundamental building block for all of the other STEM disciplines. Second, math by itself is a driver of creativity, innovation, and productivity. I believe that the single greatest reason for the lack of students in STEM disciplines is the fact that too many students cannot get past the gateway discipline of mathematics. If you cannot master your introductory math courses, particularly through the basic calculus courses, you cannot begin to be effective and successful in other STEM disciplines.

And where do we stand today? It has been estimated that in the United States the number of professional mathematicians is approximately only 5,000. I believe we have to exponentially grow that number to meet the global and domestic challenges that face this nation that are being discussed in this paper.


A diverse society is one in which everyone, particularly racial/ethnic minorities and women, has the opportunity to participate fully in the life and work of society. Historically, the key argument for achieving diversity has centered around “social justice”. This argument remains relevant today.

I would like to emphasize another argument which is particularly relevant today, an argument which goes directly to our individual and national self-interest. It is a pragmatic argument. Simply put, we need minorities and women to participate more fully if the democratic freedoms and quality of life that Americans enjoy are to be sustained in the years ahead.

In basic terms, we need more women and minorities in STEM professions in order to maintain our competitive position with the rest of the world, economically, politically, and militarily. In other words, in order to retain our position of world leadership, we need to have a significantly increasing share of our workforce in STEM, and it is not happening – in fact, it is going the other way. Former President Clinton was on the RIT campus meeting with the faculty, staff, and students, and making a presentation on December 14, 2005. He introduced this very topic. He pointed out that if we could get women and minorities to participate in STEM disciplines (he did not use the acronym STEM) at the same rate that white males participate today, we could solve our global and domestic problems going forward in the areas I have talked about in this paper. He could have said we should just increase the percentage of white males going into STEM. I think he realized that while there could be some give here, there certainly is a need to have other disciplines explored fully. Moreover, not everyone is suited to STEM, and maybe the number of white males that we have in STEM disciplines today is fairly close to what the maximum figure could be.

However, 57% of students in college today are women. The percentage of women in STEM disciplines varies from 5% to 24% (excluding biology). If we could raise those numbers to the same level as white males, we will be well on the way to solving our problems within a very few years (U.S. Government Accountability Office, October 2005).

Of course, as time goes on, it will be increasingly important to engage minorities in STEM discipline. As I indicated earlier, minorities are a rapidly growing percentage of the U.S. population (attributable both to higher birth rates and immigration) and the Caucasian population is barely (and not even that) reproducing itself.

The optimum answer is to have more people – men and women, majority and minority – committing to STEM right away. The reality is that, in the short run, women provide our best advantage and, in the long run, it is women and minorities.

Why are there not a lot more women in STEM? The president of Harvard University recently – and unfortunately – made statements which have been widely interpreted as indicating that women may not have the intellectual capacity or the professional resolve to make it in STEM. Whether or not this is what he intended, this is what has been conveyed. Of course, he is obviously wrong on both fronts.

But why are women, again, so underrepresented? Many people believe it has to do with culture. Too often, women are told that they do not like math and science and they are not good at math and science; these disciplines are reserved primarily for men. Decades ago this was reflected by the fact that when women went to college, they intended to become teachers and nurses. I remember twenty years ago when I taught classes in business, economics, math, statistics, and engineering that I seldom saw a woman in any of the classes at the undergraduate level and rarely at the graduate level. Today, the majority of students in MBA programs, law schools and medical schools are women. The culture changed in these disciplines.

However, the culture has not yet changed for women in STEM disciplines. We must work to make that happen. Teachers, counselors, and parents must emphasize to women that they are welcome and can be just as successful as men in these disciplines. This should happen in pre-K and throughout K-12. One of the problems, of course, is that most of the mothers are not from these disciplines, and so they cannot serve as role models. Moreover, most of the teachers in these disciplines in K-12 are also male and not female. Finally, many of the teachers in K-12 – male or female – are not sufficiently qualified to really teach math and science. Some are ill-prepared or just drafted into these disciplines. It is hard, in these situations, for the students and teachers to project excitement and interest in STEM.

If I could divert for a moment and reflect on my own career as it regards women in leadership roles, I would like to point out the following.

When I first became Dean at the University of Cincinnati, 13 people reported directly to me. None of them were women. When I left that office ten years later, 7 of the 13 of my direct reports were women. I then moved on to the University of Hawaii where I was president for nine years. When I started, there were 13 people reporting directly to me, none of whom were women. When I left, nine years later, 7 of the 13 people reporting to me were women.

When I came to RIT, of the 15 people reporting directly to me, none of them were women. Right now, 8 of the people reporting to me are women.

Why is such the case? I must honestly say that I have never deliberately tried to recruit a woman - not ever. I simply have tried to recruit the best person possible. I have insisted that there be women and minorities in the pool to be considered but once they are in the pool, I immediately became gender- and color-blind. I was looking for the best people. I wanted the pool from which we selected to be as large as possible. As it turned out, the majority of the folks in my last three places of employment turned out to be women. Why? How come?

These questions occur because the number of women that I could consider for these administrative positions has always been small. Often women represented only 5% or 10% of the relevant pool. Yet, I hired them at more than a 50% rate.

I have a theory to explain this phenomenon. It goes like this. There is subtle and not so subtle, conscious and subconscious, and subliminal discrimination against women in certain disciplines and women for leadership roles. It is ingrained in the culture. Nonetheless, certain women rise up against these odds and overcome the obstacles before them. They manage to fight their way into the top 10 to be considered and then the top 4 or 5 to be considered. When I look at the top 5 and find one woman and four men (a 20% ratio of women to men in this case), I nonetheless end up hiring a woman more than 50% of the time. Again, why? My answer is that I am just looking for the best person. For me, the best person starts out with someone who has the highest level of integrity. It is very hard to judge that, so I do the best I can and all the candidates typically trade off about the same in that regard.

Next, I look for work ethic, smarts, and toughness. I look into their eyes. I talk with their references. I challenge them one-on-one. The people who score the most points on work ethic, smarts, and toughness are the ones I hire. They happen to be women because, given the cultural barriers they had to overcome, if they did not work harder than everyone, if they were not smarter than everyone, and if they were not tougher than everyone, they would never get to be in that final pool of five. By going with work ethic, smarts, and toughness, I tend to end up with women. That is my theory, in any event.

I must tell you, in all my years in all of these jobs, while I have been disappointed by men and, in fact, have fired unceremoniously a number of them and more graciously replaced others, the only experience I have had with women is promoting them when I can, recommending them for higher positions elsewhere when I did not have a place to move them, and thanking the heavens that I had them on the team. My point is that women certainly are qualified in every respect for roles in STEM and leadership, and especially, leadership roles in STEM. We have to figure out how to accomplish this. I turn to that next.


If I had an ironclad sure answer to the challenges introduced, I would be flying all around the county, state, and nation trying to expedite it. I am not flying, but I have been participating in the issue and some solutions for a number of years. Let me offer some suggestions by reviewing the proposal by the Commission of Independent Colleges and Universities (cIcu) recently articulated at the State legislature. (cIcu is a lobbying and research group representing the 109 independent colleges and universities throughout the State of New York.) I served as Chairman of the cIcu Board from 2000 to 2002. At that time, I argued strenuously and effectively, I thought, for some of the proposals that are being offered now. In fact, one or two of the most important ones were favorably reviewed by the budget director and the governor – and then the recession hit. cIcu has been assiduously and steadfastly working on these and other proposals in the interim.

Actions that we as a State can take within the current environment will be listed below. If all of the states across the nation undertook similar steps, as a nation we will be on our way. However, the steps have to be taken quickly and – importantly – they have to be undertaken vigorously with outcome measurement and follow through. Appropriate resources, coordination, management, and tough leadership have to be part of any successful implementation.

Specifically, the action steps would be the following:

• Increase math and science teachers by providing 1,000 scholarships of up to $10,000 per year for those students who commit to teaching math and science in New York State for up to five years. Preference could be given to applicants with family incomes under $75,000. This program would cost $10 million in the first year and $50 million when it was fully phased in.

• Increase the number of engineers by offering 1,000 loan forgiveness awards of up to $10,000 per year. Recipients would have to commit to work for a New York located firm for up to five years upon graduation. This program will cost $10 million in the first year, and $50 million when fully phased in.

• Increase underrepresented students in math and science by expanding the STEP/C-STEP program. This is a program which offers 60% of its funding to support high schools and 40% to support colleges. The purpose of the program is to increase the number of historically underrepresented and disadvantaged students prepared to enter college and to complete college (at both the undergraduate and graduate levels) in STEM and health-related fields and licensed professions. The program includes the addition of counselors and mentors whose job is to be certain that high school students are encouraged to take the foundation courses necessary to be prepared for college programs in STEM. Currently, $9.5 million is dedicated to STEP/C-STEP, and another $2.5 million is being requested this year.

• Create eight math- and science-focused high schools throughout the state. The state is being asked to provide $1 million per year for each school.

• Increase the number of people who undertake mid-career changes in order to teach math and science by working with the State Education Department in implementing alternative teacher certification programs. This program would be available to retirees as well. The governor has requested, in his budget, $5 million for this program.

• Increase interest in STEM by encouraging internships and partnerships among colleges, businesses, and middle and high schools.

These are examples of where cIcu stands now in dealing with the challenge of STEM. This is a program which has the attention of the governor and the legislature. All of us are lobbying the legislature.

Every state in the nation needs to do this. Moreover, support for these state efforts has to be reinforced at the federal level. The Business Council of the State of New York, the Conference Board, and the Council on Competitiveness are also sounding their own clarions and introducing their own ideas for solution. Clearly, this is a national challenge and threat (and we certainly have numerous others) that must be dealt with.


Our nation is facing a major global economic challenge. We must successfully meet this challenge if the U.S. is to preserve its democracy, quality of life, and world leadership position. A fundamental key to meeting the challenge is to increase the number of K-18 students engaged in STEM. A pivotal strategy to achieve this goal is to enhance diversity in STEM disciplines.

Doing the right thing in terms of social justice simultaneously serves our pragmatic economic self-interest. In the short run, women provide our best approach. In the long run, it is women and minorities.

In the words of René DuBos:
“Human diversity makes tolerance more than a virtue. It makes it a requirement for survival.” (Celebrations of Life, 1982).