Space Watch: The engineering crisis redux

By ROBERT ZIMMERMAN   |   May 5, 2005 at 12:05 AM   |   0 comments

WASHINGTON, May 5 (UPI) -- The turf war between engineers and scientists over government funding erupted again last week with the release of an interim National Research Council report criticizing NASA for canceling or delaying a number of space-based Earth science projects.

Worried the cuts might lead to a long-term downturn in U.S. research capabilities, the report -- along with testimony by scientists at a congressional hearing the day the report was released -- failed to address an already existing problem: For the last 20 years, the country's engineering base has shown a disturbing and significant decline -- a decline that shows no sign of abating.

One of the central arguments used repeatedly by scientists whenever there is a hint of research funding cuts at NASA, or anywhere else in the government, is that the cuts either will force people to leave the field or discourage students from entering it.

The NRC report, "Earth Science and Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to Serve the Nation," presents a forceful argument. In detailing NASA's reduction in Earth science research, the report noted, "there will be an immediate and deleterious impact on graduate student, post-doctoral and facility research support. The long-term consequence will be a diminished ability to attract and retain students interested in using and developing Earth observations."

Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, repeated this argument during his testimony April 28 before the House Science Committee.

"The danger of not carrying forward as ambitious and as thoughtful a program in Earth sciences as we can afford (risks) the loss of interest in the next generation," Solomon told committee members. "Young people who are choosing what careers to go into ... can see trends -- they can see ... where things are shutting down."

Nor was Solomon's testimony unusual. During an earlier Science Committee hearing, on Feb. 2, Joseph Taylor, a Nobel laureate and astrophysicist at Princeton University, took the same position in describing the consequences if optical astronomy faced a gap in capability after the Hubble Space Telescope is decommissioned.

"One of the very serious losses if there were a gap of as large as five years would be the loss of people in the (science) community who would need find other things to do ... and probably would not be replaced," Taylor said.

It is questionable whether the risk of such losses in the nation's science capability is of immediate concern, however. That the Science Committee felt compelled to hold hearings on both Earth science and Hubble funding indicates such research has strong support and will not get cut.

As Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the committee chairman, said in his opening statement last Thursday, "We need to stop, examine what's happening and make sure that the fiscal (year) 2006 budget for NASA ... includes adequate funding to keep Earth science moving forward for the foreseeable future."

Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., seconded Boehlert by pitting Earth science against NASA's new focus on human space exploration. "The bottom line appears to be that NASA's Earth science program faces the prospect of being marginalized in the coming years as the agency puts its focus on the president's exploration initiative," he said at the hearing.

Even if congressional support fails to stop funding cuts for pure science research, however, the NRC report, the committee and even scientists appear to be worried about a problem that does not yet exist.

According to a lengthy 2002 report by the National Science Board, "Science and Engineering Indicators," there actually has been no downturn in degrees awarded in the hard sciences for the last two decades -- including Earth science. From 1975 to 1998, "students earned a relatively stable number of degrees in the physical sciences and mathematics," the report said.

For engineers, however, the decline started 20 years ago. Since 1985, the NSB report showed a significant decrease in the number of engineering students graduating college.

The NSB's conclusions were remarkably detailed. The authors not only tracked the number of science & engineering degrees during the period covered, they also broke down the numbers to show trends in a number of specific research fields: engineering, computers, mathematics, psychology, sociology, physical science, Earth science and biological-agricultural science.

The trends showed there has been a significant shift since the 1980s away from engineering. As the report noted, "Engineering degrees, which represented 8 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in 1986, slowly dropped to 5 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in 1998."

At the same time, the fields of psychology, biology and agricultural and social sciences showed hefty increases.

In short, instead of worrying about how cuts in science research at NASA might hurt the future of American science, maybe the NRC report and congressional hearings should have addressed the real losses that have occurred in the nation's engineering capabilities.

This is important particularly because no scientific research can occur if there are no engineers to design, build and launch the rockets and space probes the scientists use.

For the last 40 years, since the days of Apollo, the focus of America's space program has been pure scientific research. The result of that heritage unquestionably has been the strong and stable growth of the country's science base.

During that same time, however, there has been a lack of any new or exciting engineering achievement in space, other than the shuttle and space station, both of which have failed to inspire the nation due to their narrow goals.

Therefore, the declining interest in engineering is not surprising.

From this perspective, President George W. Bush's new space initiative represents a reasonable shift in policy.

Bush proposed a bold and visionary engineering initiative to build new manned spacecraft for exploring the solar system. He essentially did for engineering what scientists claim Earth science research does for science: invigorate future generations toward the wonders of engineering and design, thereby encouraging growth in the country's engineering skills.

Considering the engineering brain drain the nation already has sustained, maybe it is time for Congress to give this kind of engineering project priority over the scientific research it has routinely favored in the last few decades.

--

Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian and the author of "Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8. His most recent book, "Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel," was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

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