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The Male-Heavy World of Science

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February 02, 2003|Margaret Wertheim | Margaret Wertheim writes the Quark Soup column on science and culture for the LA Weekly. This piece is based on a lecture she gave recently at Caltech.

America is not producing enough scientists and engineers. Not nearly enough. So concluded participants in a wide ranging summit on our science and engineering workforce held in late November at the National Academies in Washington. More than 50% of our doctoral engineering students are foreign nationals -- fully 43% come from Asia -- and increasingly these students are choosing to return to their home countries after graduation. From 1986 to 1999, foreign students earned a total of 120,000 doctoral degrees in science and engineering at U.S. institutions, and employers increasingly rely on these graduates to fill the jobs that form the basis of many of our critical industries.

"If India and China stopped sending their students," Merrilea Mayo, the summit's convener, said, "our entire economy would be in deep trouble."

We will probably be OK for the next decade, Mayo told me, but beyond that we are going to have a serious problem unless we can encourage more U.S. students to go into these fields. American supremacy in high technology is already beginning to drop behind emerging nations such as China and South Korea. At the same time, according to a recent report by the National Science Foundation, over the next decade our nation will need to hire 240,000 new science and math teachers at the middle school and high school levels. The majority of them will replace retiring teachers. Who is going to inspire our kids to even consider such careers?

Much is made of the need to improve public engagement with science -- the British have an entire movement devoted to the cause -- but in discussions of this issue we seem to hear only from one side of the equation: the communicators. In science circles, it is broadly understood that scientists must become better communicators. The need to interest a wider public has become so urgent that, in October, the National Science Foundation amended its policy so that a percentage of all research grants must be allotted to outreach efforts. In a similar vein, Caltech now requires all juniors to take a course in science writing. Students have to produce an essay suitable for publication in a popular science magazine such as Scientific American.

It is wonderful and necessary for scientists to become better communicators. Yet communication is a two-way street. In discussions about the "public understanding of science," the one group we never seem to hear about are those on the receiving end of the equation -- the public, the people with whom we are supposed to be communicating. As any radio engineer knows, you can transmit a signal as strong as you like, but unless there are receivers tuned to the appropriate frequency, little information will get through.

Who is tuning in to our signal? One significant barometer is the readership of science magazines, the journals at which Caltech students are aiming.

The top-selling science magazines in the United States are Discover, Scientific American, Popular Science, Wired, Natural History, Science News, Astronomy and Science. Collectively, they sell about 4.4 million copies a month. Of the two most prestigious, Discover sells about 1 million a month and Scientific American around 700,000. Both are bested by Popular Science with almost 1.5 million a month.

All magazines claim multiple readers for each copy sold. In the science field, that ranges from two readers a copy for Astronomy to six for Discover. Tallying the numbers gives us a total of more than 21 million science readers a month. Reader surveys, however, tend to be subjective, and the truly concrete numbers relate to subscribers who account for the vast bulk of magazine sales.

So how do science subscribers break down? One category to consider is gender. Scientific American, the oldest and most prestigious title on our list, gives us a clue to the landscape: 87% male, 13% female. Most of the other titles follow suit. But what of the biggest seller, Popular Science? The magazine has not surveyed its subscribers in several years. Its reader surveys indicate that 19% are women, yet women science readers typically constitute a much higher percentage than subscribers. Indeed, a marketing manager at Popular Science told me, "We have almost no women subscribers." Doing the math, it turns out that about four-fifths of all science subscribers are men.

Age demographics also reveal a significant skewing. The median age of Scientific American subscribers is 49, so also for Discover subscribers. For Popular Science, the median-age reader is 43. Even the hipster Wired has a median subscriber age of 41. Not surprisingly, science audiences are well educated. For example, 85% of Scientific American subscribers have a college degree, and 60% a postgraduate degree. With these pedigrees, science subscribers tend to be good earners. Wired tops the pool with an average household income of $132,0000.

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