January 20, 2009 not only ushered in a new President, but a President who believes in science and wants to fund it. While I havenâ€™t been in the lab in over a decade, my heart is still there, and I have been working on a daily basis for over ten years to convince more women to decide on a scientific research career.
The last few years Iâ€™ve had a tough time with this because the level of funding for science has dropped like a lead balloon. I have many reasons for wanting women to enter science or engineering, but one of them is that they can make up to $40,000 – $60,000 right out of college. Economic justice for women canâ€™t happen if we continue to keep women segregated into low-paying jobs. In my insider/outsider status in the scientific community, Iâ€™ve seen more and more scientists fight over fewer and fewer dollars. Itâ€™s made me think: Is this really the place I wanted to send women?
The women I meet want to change the world with their science and engineering skills. They want to ease, if not eliminate, poverty in drought-stricken environments. They want to cure diseases that they watched their grandparents die from, that broke their parentsâ€™ hearts. So yes, of course, I still encourage them to keep moving forward and to chase their dreams. They will change the world.
As I write this, the economic stimulus package has just been passed in the Senate, though it may ultimately be shorn of some essential funding for science and education. Republicans criticized and wanted the removal of funds for the National Science Foundation, which supports much of the basic science that happens at colleges and universities where many of our future scientists and engineers are training. Apparently a number on the right side of the aisle donâ€™t believe in or understand science enough to know that yes, science is stimulus and is shovel-ready. Iâ€™ll let my former research adviser, Mark Westneat, take it from here:
â€¦scientific research is basically all about hiring people and buying stuff. NSF grants are not funding elite Ivory Tower endeavors â€” the money helps everyone. The primary line item in most research grants is salary for students, technicians, interns, post-doctoral scientists, and researchers. These are mostly young people who contribute fresh approaches and new ideas to the research while receiving training in science and technology. While these are not blue collar jobs, all institutions charge an overhead fee on federal grants that is used to fund operational costs, including administrative assistants, plumbers, electricians, and house-keeping staff to keep the research enterprise running. The remaining money is used to buy things, from high-end items such as computers, microscopes, DNA sequencers, and chemicals, to every-day items like office supplies and airline tickets. Most of these things are purchased from American companies and, in the case of my own institution, preferentially from local minority and woman-owned businesses. In addition, scientific institutions provide a significant portion of developmental aid at low cost, by training thousands of students and colleagues each year in developing countries.
In all reality, some of our great institutions of higher learning are putting off building maintenance in order to keep classes open and faculty employed. Iâ€™m sure that if those who criticized NSF funding as pork understood that science and education are shovel-ready projects, they would have thrown a few million to universities to fix deferred maintenance on buildings.
Here we are in a new administration, which clearly supports science, and yet we still have to deal with anti-science people who seek to cripple our colleges, universities, and museums from doing what they do best â€“ research, teaching, and preparing a new generation of products and people to bring us economically and scientifically into a new frontier. Science and engineering bring us medical advances and the new gadgets that people line up for days before going on sale to buy. From the smallest iPod to the next Wii, thereâ€™s a lot of science and engineering, education and research, behind it. Ever seen the line outside the Apple store? Thatâ€™s stimulus. And thatâ€™s an industry I could feel comfortable telling women to go into in order to derive all possible benefits. But clearly itâ€™s still going to have to take some more Change around Washington to do.