Committee Examines Nuclear Science Workforce Issues

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Publication date: 
23 November 2004

On November 18, the DOE/NSF Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC) met for the last time in its current form. At the meeting, a substantial portion of time was devoted to the nuclear science and engineering workforce, and how best to educate, prepare, diversify and maintain it for the 21st century.

According to Dennis Kovar of DOE's Office of Science, NSAC will effectively go out of existence on December 10, until its charter is revised. It will "change character," he said, from a committee of representatives to a committee of experts. This means, he explained, that committee members will have to be sworn in as temporary special government employees, participate in ethics training, and abide by the relevant conflict of interest and financial disclosure regulations. DOE's Office of Science intends to transform all of its advisory committees in this way, in a decision that Kovar said was "driven by" an April GAO report that reviewed the federal scientific advisory committee system (see He expected the transition to be "straightforward," and added that most other federal advisory committees already operated as committees of experts. "If they can do it, so can we," he remarked.

Committee members then heard presentations on the demographics of the nuclear science community and ways to ensure adequate numbers and adequate preparation of nuclear scientists and engineers for the future. The Office of Science's James Hawkins summarized the results of a survey of the DOE-supported nuclear physicists workforce. The survey showed a downward trend in PhD production over the last few years. It also showed headcounts increasing in the past year at universities and generally decreasing at the national labs. At some labs, the headcount rose at the same time that the number of FTEs (full-time equivalents) dropped, indicating that more nuclear physicists at the labs were receiving only partial DOE support. Asked whether this was "a good thing or a bad thing," Kovar opined that if DOE was only funding a fraction of a person's time, "we don't know whether that fraction is more or less than we're paying for." Some other issues of concern raised by the manpower survey, Hawkins said, were a downward trend in PhD production, the time it takes to obtain a PhD, and a lack of diversity.

Joseph Cerny of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory described the findings and recommendations of an NSAC subcommittee tasked with evaluating DOE and NSF investments in education relevant to nuclear science. Many of the concerns emphasized by the subcommittee echoed Hawkins' comments, including declining PhD production, time to degree, and lack of gender and ethnic diversity. To obtain its data, the subcommittee surveyed current graduate students, postdocs, undergraduates involved in research, and PhDs with 5-10 years of experience.

The survey generally showed "substantial satisfaction" with a career in nuclear science, Cerny said, but also revealed "a significant fraction" of highly dissatisfied individuals. Cerny reported that much of the dissatisfaction stemmed from students lacking a realistic view of the job market and not being adequately prepared for the broad range and interdisciplinary nature of jobs outside of academia and the national labs. The subcommittee's general findings included "slowly declining PhD production" that may be insufficient to meet demand in the traditional job market, a "striking underrepresentation of women and minorities in the nuclear science workforce," a median time of 7.0 years for graduate students to receive a PhD, and a sense among U.S. grad students that their foreign counterparts were better trained.

Citing public misconceptions of terms such as "nuclear" and "radiation," the subcommittee named, as its highest priority for new investment in education, "the creation by the DOE and the NSF of a Center for Nuclear Science Outreach." The subcommittee recommended that such a center provide educational materials and a nuclear science website for K-12 teachers, students, and the public; leverage existing outreach efforts; and encourage outreach activities by "every active nuclear scientist."

According to Cerny, the nuclear science community produces approximately 85 PhDs per year, while the expected base need will be 100 per year, with growing demand in the areas of medical physics, nuclear medicine, and national security. This led to the subcommittee's second recommendation, that "the nuclear science community work to increase the number of new PhD' approximately 20 percent over the next five to ten years."

The subcommittee also addressed ways to enhance the undergraduate and graduate experiences and expand diversity. Suggestions for enhancing the undergraduate experience included ensuring good physics preparation in high school, research participation in college, and interaction with the broader nuclear science community. The subcommittee recommended an online nuclear science instructional materials database and more proactive outreach and recruitment, especially to underrepresented groups, continued DOE and NSF support for undergraduate research experiences, awards for exceptional mentors, and establishment of another nuclear chemistry summer school if there was sufficient demand.

Challenges to enhancing the graduate and postdoctoral experiences, the subcommittee found, included continuing to attract outstanding students, preparing them for careers in a wide variety of jobs, reducing the "time to scientific independence," and working to create a "culture of inclusion." The subcommittee encouraged DOE and NSF to establish new, prestigious graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, and issued a specific recommendation to the nuclear science community to "assume greater responsibility" for shortening the average time to a PhD and time spent in postdoctoral positions.

Regarding gender diversity, Cerny noted that among the physical science disciplines, physics and astronomy (combined) rank the lowest in production of women PhDs, with a three-year average of 15.0 percent, and that nuclear sciences' six-year average is even lower, at 14.1 percent. Regarding ethnic diversity, Cerny said nuclear science "resembles the most well-known white men's club...the U.S. Senate." Remarking on the "bleak current picture" of diversity in the field, the subcommittee's report cited a number of "impediments to improvement" and recommended "a concerted commitment by the nuclear science community," with the support of DOE and NSF, to increase diversity through better connections with minority-serving institutions, "bridge" programs, more family-friendly policies, and greater visibility of role models. The subcommittee's report also addressed mentoring and professional development, highlighting the importance of "realistic career advice" and the unrealistic expectations of many survey respondents. It recommended that the nuclear science community establish mentoring and professional development programs "and that the agencies support such efforts through the funding of competitive proposals."