A scientific mind is a terrible thing to waste

Posted By Pamela on May 14, 2010 | 31 comments

Help me? (© Veronika Vasilyuk | Dreamstime.com)

Help me? (© Veronika Vasilyuk | Dreamstime.com)

I haven’t been doing a lot of writing lately. I generally just make the excuses, “I’ve been busy” or say “I don’t make money on my blog and need to focus on paid jobs.” These are just excuses though. I can always find time to write. The truth is, I just can’t find it in me to write positively about science and academia when I look around and see so many things that hurt. This has been a rough year for our community. Colleges in California and Arizona have been shutting down a few days a month here and there (euphemistically referred to as furloughing staff). In the UK, 25% of the fellowships and student grants for PhD students and PostDocs are being removed. Everywhere, universities have cut journal subscriptions, travel and seminar budgets have been zeroed, and even chalk is being cut back on. The situation in academia has gotten demoralizing to the point where somedays the only proper response seems to be crying at my keyboard. Astronomy is a field that should be inspiring to the public, but our economically downtrodden public just don’t have the money needed to live, yet alone the money needed to fund astronomy through taxes. I get it. There are too many people too close to me without jobs to not understand the problem.

Today I saw something that made me decide I needed to talk about what has been bothering me all these months. A local high school teacher came into campus to return some equipment she’d borrowed from the center I work in. As she talked to one of the other women, she blinked back tears as she said (as best as I can remember) “They cut everything. They cut all my programs. It’s all gone.” She went on to detail some of the amazing things she’d been doing. If I mention them, she’ll be identifiable, so let me just say this woman was what everyone who loves science wishes for in a science teacher. She was. And she still could be. But science is getting removed from schools.

To graduate from high school in Illinois, you are required two years of science. That’s it: two years. Some students take earth science and bio, and move on with life, never looking back. Sometimes they want to take physics, chemistry, astronomy, and so much more, and their school says “Take earth science and bio and move on with life – that’s all we’ll teach.” It costs money to teach science, and it is devalued in our national standard. While the “No Child Left Behind” program tests math and reading skills on a yearly basis through grade 8 (and at least once between grades 10-12), science is only examined three times in all 12 years of a student’s education. Since the entire nation is tested the same years, and students in bins of grades all get the same test, what reason do schools even have to teach science in years when exams aren’t being given? At all levels cuts are being made. Math too suffers. Here in Illinois, only two years of math are required to graduate. And foreign languages aren’t even required.

This is a devastating problem. Last semester I taught Physics Concepts, a class for non-science majors. Many had never had math above basic geometry. Chemistry and Physics weren’t even offered in many of their schools. These are students from small towns with high schools of under 100 students per class. With no budget due to the problem of no tax dollars (because unemployment is high and people just can’t pay taxes), these schools just can’t afford to teach math and science. But college entrance requirements don’t match what the high schools teach. Here at SIUE, I regularly have students in my classes who are as smart as the students I’ve worked with at MIT and Harvard, but in many cases their high schools simply didn’t offer the classes needed for them to get into an outstanding university.

MIT, a school whose undergrads I hold in the highest regard, suggests 1 year each of physics, chemistry and biology, math through (and including) calculus, and 2 years of a foreign language. My Alma Mater, MSU, as a public school is less demanding, but it still expects 3 years of math and prefers 4, looks for 2 years of foreign language, and 2 of science. And University of Illinois recommends 4 years of math, science and foreign language. This is what floors me, in some cases high schools in Illinois aren’t even making it possible for their students to attend the flagship state university.

Part of the reason I want to stay at SIUE is I know I can offer our students chances they wouldn’t otherwise have. I have outstanding colleagues in other departments who feel the same. We are here to be the difference we want to see in the world. I have NASA-funded programs that allow students to be part of research programs rather then still working at Starbucks, Home Depot, or Radio Shack. These students are in many cases the hardest working I’ve ever dealt with, and not once has someone complained to me that they deserved a better test grade because of how much tuition they paid or who their daddy is (Things I’ve heard at more than 1 other university). I love my students (even in the moments I want to kill them). But every day things are making it harder to function. First it was the journals. We don’t have 1 astronomy journal at SIUE, so I personally subscribe where I can, and where I can’t I beg PDFs from colleagues at what my students call “Real Universities” (do you know how much that hurts to hear from a student?) Then it was the discount chalk – dusty c*** that breaks easily and covers everything in white while not adhering to the board. Then it was zeroing of all travel budgets – even for student travel. Now it is the Illinois legislated hiring freezes. Our university has departments with no secretary, and now department chairs – PhD academics – are struggling to process payroll sheets, inventory orders, and even class evaluation forms all on top of their teaching, and research, and committee assignments and the too many other duties that are the normal, overly busy life of a chair. Departments aren’t thriving, and depression rules.

And it’s only going to get worse. The state of Illinois is $130 MILLION behind in paying their bills. This is $25,000 in debt per household in a state where the average annual household income is only $56,000 (and if you remove Chicago and its surroundings, this number drops significantly). Here is the southern half of the state, this debt is well over half the typical household’s yearly income.

There simply is no money.

For the past several months, about every 6 weeks we have gotten notice from our university president that says (total total paraphrase) “We now know we can pay salary this month, but we don’t know about next month, but if everyone tightens their belt we hope to make it.” In February, after all the students had paid their tuition, we still didn’t know if the university would be able to stay open all semester. Do you know how hard it is to have a student ask, “But what happens if SIUE shuts down? Will we have to give back our student loans? I already paid my tuition on my loan. What can I do?” I didn’t have answers, and all I could say was, “I’m sorry. Let’s hope Illinois comes through.”

And it’s simply going to get worse.

Illinois still hasn’t passed a budget for 2010-2011. A state bill was passed allowing the university to borrow money. We don’t know if the hiring freeze will end. But we know we can’t make life harder on our students: SIUE has frozen tuition and fees at their 2009-2010 level. Our students will not suffer financially for the failures of Illinois. But I worry about academics. The only way SIUE and our sister school SIUC will be able to survive is by increasing enrollment. We are also cutting faculty lines, reducing the number of non-tenure/tenure track professors (I’m not scheduled to teach in the fall, but hope something may still change), and cutting support staff. This means more students with fewer people contributing to their education. We’ll have larger classes, more multiple choice tests, and more digital homework sets. Students will still get a good education, but the one-on-one moments that matter, all those times when a prof and a student just talk in an office, all the times a real learning problem is identified by a prof going over a hand-written homework assignment, all the things that make good profs great professors are going to go away in the face of too much work and no free time.

Providing a great education is difficult with limited resources and too high a teaching load. It is only possible when faculty make personal sacrifices for the good of their students. Most of us will do that, but we are at our breaking point. We love our students. We will fight to give them a solid education. But somedays I don’t know how much longer we can go on fighting.

Today, a high school teacher fought back tears in the hallway. Her programs are gone.

Without education, there is no future. I understand her tears, and for her and all the students who are having doors closed to their future, I too simply want to cry.

An economic earthquake has shaken our state and our nation. There are some buildings still standing, but I’m afraid everyone has been hurt.


  1. Ah Pamela, these are trying times we live in. The rub is finding, even conceiving of, solutions. Our second president, Adams, felt education was a fundamental and sacred responsibility of government. He tried to make it part of the American Obligation. Since 1776, I fear his vision and message has been forgotten and ignored, in lieu of more political goals, war, pork, inefficient bureaucracy, the usual suspects. If truth is the first victim of war, education is the first victim of the short-sighted self interested hacks. As I advance in years (and trust me, I’m running at this point) it is increasingly hard for me to avoid jaded cynicism, and that is really quite sad. What to do? Fight the good fight, advocate where advocacy is needed, and pray; pray that hope, vision and love are not forgotten, and for the strength to keep your chin above declination zero……craig

  2. I am so, so sorry to hear that. 🙁

    They almost closed three elementary schools in our rural and sparsely populated county, and the parents fought like hell to keep them open. They may not have much money, but they have great student/teacher ratios, dedicated teachers, and really bright kids.

    If you or your students ever need PDFs of journal articles, I’d be more then happy to look them up for you. It’s the least I can do to help out!

  3. Wow. I’m an education physics major at IU, and that just made me really sad. We must do something, but what can we do?

  4. I’m really sorry to hear about your difficulties at SIUE.

    I live in Illinois too, more specifically in Homer Glen, and i am going to school for architectural design / 3D modeling and i have seen and noticed the down crease in money my school has been given and the changes in loans i have taken. teachers seem to come and go, classes that can not be taken due to funding. Even tho im studying to become an architect my hobbies and interest are ginormous in astronomy and science and it is horrible to hear that you guys and schools alike are not getting the full cargo of classes, resources, trips, etc. i really hope all gets better SOON.

    and… I love the new AstronomyCast Episodes you guys are doing. keep them up!

    And illinois SERIOUSLY does not have any money. they are jackbutts at managing cashola.

  5. This would make an excellent topic for your TAM talk! How will the JREF get anyone to take skeptical arguments seriously if they have no understanding of basic science. The situation is deplorable.

    BTW, did you go to Lyman Briggs at MSU? I was lucky enough to have a great high school science program and was able to take 3 years of biology in addition to chemistry and physics. We had a great biology teacher that even took us on a field trip to a Lyman Briggs high school visitation event. Thats what convinced me to go to MSU and Briggs and I am forever grateful.

  6. Wonderful post – honest, sad, sobering. I had almost no science in high school, but was lucky enough to go to an excellent, small, low-profile state school that required 2 full years of science in the core curriculum. I discovered first, at ages 18-22, that I loved it.. all of it. Biology, Physics, and most of all, Astronomy.

    I grew up in the deep south/Barbie doll/”math is hard” world where girls just didn’t even take advanced math courses, much less look at any sciences as a viable course option for exploration. I never had a female science or math teacher. Ever.

    So I finished college and went into journalism.. science was just a hobby you see. It couldn’t be viable because I wasn’t smart enough to do it. What does Bob Seger say? Wish I didn’t know then what I didn’t know now. I see you, Dr. Gay, and other female scientists and teachers as pioneers. You didn’t buy it. You didn’t drink the kool-aid. You went to space camp and you got your PhD and now you’re out there, fighting the good fight.

    Timothy Ferris has a new book positing that without Science, we cannot have a society based on liberty and vice/versa. But when basic needs aren’t being met.. when people feel threatened at their core (am I going to be able to feed my kids today) they can’t afford liberty. And when that thinking takes hold, reason is sacrificed. And when that happens, schools cut science programs and there starts what we’ll call now the crappy-chalk-catch-22. It’s a dangerous deterioration that is difficult to reverse once put in motion. (What’s that about once, in motion, things like to stay that way?)

    I manage the development of the software program for a majority of the public libraries in my state. This week, I was in all day meetings, defending our funding to directors, legislators, etc. The sad/wonderful fact is that we’re recognized as a critical piece of the puzzle missing in our public education system. Where it not for the services our remarkably efficient consortium provides, there are whole populations who would have access to virtually no resources.

    The books and articles, audio and video that opened our minds and jump-started our imaginations to look up and out and back in again – to tap our potential and follow paths of progress – just wouldn’t be there. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do our minds.

    So, after a week after which we all walked away feeling beat up and strung out, I come across your post and boom. I feel better. Not for your struggle, but for how much you care, how much you contribute, and how much our efforts now, in all of our respective areas (whether or not we were able to become astronomers or just a manager beating software into submission) matter now more than ever.

    Thanks for your post. Thanks for your podcasts. Keep the faith. Keep the science.

  7. Pamela,

    If Sarah Palin can have a T (tax) Party, why can’t you (and the many, many concerned folk including me) have an E (education) Party? It’s time we vote with our feet.

    Obama seems to understand that there’s a significant problem but is not making education the priority it should be — ditto for Congress.

    David Stahl – Sequim, WA

    P.S. Enjoy the astronomy casts — I sense they’re a lot of work for you. Still I’d like an update on the Drake equation — the April edition of ‘Astronomy’ says there’s 10,000 communicative civilizations in the Milky Way.

  8. This was taken from the education.com site:

    “I will provide funds for states to implement a broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students’ abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, present and defend their ideas,” says Obama

    Like anything political there is a lag of years between ideas, bills passing and money arriving at intended targets. I am optimistic that your future is a rosier than you see it today.

    I also recommend that your institution seek creative solutions such as promoting the institution where the demand exists. The public school systems are indeed in a state of turmoil and need MAJOR revamping IMO.
    However, the INTERNATIONAL demand for U.S. advanced studies is virtually recession and depression proof as there are MANY international students with the budget and resources to come to the U.S. and get a university education.

    Until the U.S. catches up with Obama’s ideas and intentions this market is available and a viable alternative to supplement slumping times. Until the U.S. sees it hit industry in the pocket book over these declining education standards beyond recession and economic downturns, they seem hard pressed to find motivation. The international community thirsts for U.S. based education and sadly is resulting in more and more advanced posts going to qualified foreign nationals. If the American public doesn’t have a drive and need to find the power and meaning of a higher education then perhaps those who DO care should get that opportunity.

    Keep your chin up, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

    Vic Jasin

  9. Sheesh Pamela. I had no idea that it was so bad at the moment in the states. We are so far removed down here in Australia, that sometimes you feel like you’re on a different planet!

    These things always occur in cycles. Things always turn around, and with people like yourself promoting public education in science, it means that we all still have a voice.

  10. I am crying too.

  11. Hi Pamela,

    Here in NY the situation is even worse but the reasons are the same. No money and nobody has a solution for any of it. Schools are closing everywhere. In my 51 years living in Western NY, and economically things were never rosey here, I have never seen it this bad. Looking down the road I just see rain.

  12. The problem is that the states have massive obligations, especially pensions, that they can’t get out of. An increasing percentage of education spending is going to administration and pensions — i.e., to people who aren’t teaching. California alone is half a trillion in debt for their pension obligations and Illinois only recently banned double-dipping. Most states massively increased spending during the 2000’s boom, creating obligations for future years that they now can’t afford.

    We’re simply feeling the effects of decades of fiscal mismanagement. I don’t see that it’s going to get any better.

  13. Wow – sobering stuff. We largely managed to dodge that bullet in Australia, so it is powerful to hear that on the other side of the world, people are struggling with so basic a thing as obtaining a good education. And it is terrible to hear about students not regarding their university as ‘real’; it seems like the two-tier system in America serves only to massage the ego and line the pockets of the Ivy leaguers and famous research unis, while not so subtly dealing a hammer blow to the confidence of those who cannot attend them through circumstance.

    Chin up though – you do an amazing job, and the bad times will ease. It was largely outreach by professional astronomers that inspired me onward to the game I’m in, and I have no doubt that the hard work and dedication of you and your colleagues will inspire others onward to science.

  14. “…so it is powerful to hear that on the other side of the world, people are struggling with so basic a thing as obtaining a good education.”

    Of course, the majority of the people in the world struggle to get any sort of education, let alone a good one. I simply meant to say that I didn’t quite realise the seriously dire straights that America has found itself in…

  15. Pamela,

    Great posting. Unfortunately it will get worse before it gets better. The countless billions (trillions even) that the US and UK governments have poured into, at best, a highly debatable conflict in Iraq means that both of these countries now have severe funding issues.

    In the short term it is easy to cut the areas of science that do not generate revenue and are seen as simply there to further our knowledge and understanding. When UK government funding is about to be slashed by 25% who is going to listen to a few astronomers bleating on about needing a new telescope to play with?

    In addition, standards in science and maths education have been falling for years as the emphasis on all succeeding equally well means difficult areas get removed from the curriculum… which as a scientist always baffles me. Supposedly simplifying the curriculum would make it more appealing to more people – especially girls (an awful piece of political logic, but shockingly true). Trouble is no one takes science because it is easy or difficult, you study science because you like asking questions about the world and universe. So changing the benchmark for science has simply produced a batch of poorly educated scientists as opposed a batch of well educated scientists.

    Maybe you could ask that nice Mr Dawkins for a few pointers… after all he has a chief role in furthering the public advance of his bank account, sorry I mean Furthering the Public Understanding of Science.


  16. These are our chickens come home to roost! I know that people are sick of finger pointing and recriminations, but lets try to learn the larger lesson here:

    When you fill the government with people who think that government is bad, when you elect representatives who believe that their highest obligation is to increase the wealth of their major contributors, you can’t be surprised when they cut important programs and raid the treasury!

  17. The Illinois leadership makes me want to scream and curse. I don’t care if the answer they choose is tax increases or heavy cuts. I’d just like to see someone take a firm stand one way or another. To admit: “This is a colossal problem. This is what I believe needs to be done, and I will throw myself entirely into this struggle.” Just to see something that could be called leadership would be enough to tip my vote in either direction.

    I think I draw different conclusions when I hear the ‘Real University’ claim, but it’s always disgusted me too. It’s an enabling thought train that I’ve always heard in the context of why what they did was good enough, why they don’t think criticisms of it are valid. They denigrate themselves as bottom-rate so that they don’t have to push themselves to do better.

    There’s nothing wrong with knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and knowing exactly how far you want your ambition to carry you. It is wrong to mentally construct an institutional caste system as a justification for how much effort you expend or what you are capable of doing. As if any outside authority were capable of dictating identity. Where is pride as a positive entity?

    Marcus Aurelius:

    “You have to assemble life yourself – action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening.”

    “-But there are external obstacles…”

    “Not to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense.”

  18. This is shocking stuff, I think a mass rally outside the White House is required, the future is at risk if there are not high levels of education available. I bet this is not happening in India or China.

    Cut the nukes down even more, bin the Trident upgrade, make the Banks pay government first then they can have their fat cat bonuses.

    I love it when they go on about how well the Stock Markets are doing but the truth is here in your post and here in the UK it is just as bad, in fact I have never seen it as bad in all my 50 years.

    Our Governments have let us all down, shame on them !

    Take them on and make them do something about it.

  19. This is a very interesting issue. I teach at several private universities in Prague. It has come to my attention that American students which come to study here for a semester or two are generally not as advanced scientifically or mathematically at most of their European counterparts. This is a sad observation. If America wants to assume a leadership role in the world, it must awaken the full potential of its youth. From where I sit, this is not being done.

    There is a second, more neferious and politically contentious issue, which is nagging like a bad back-itch to be discussed. Is it sane to neglect a child’s scientific education it the name of freedom of religion?

    There has been too much kow-towing to the religious right for political gain, and it has been at the expense of young minds. “Creation science” is not science – no matter how it is packaged. The shameful thing is that the very defintion of science has become a question of correct interpretation. Science has its limits, but its potential is virtually unlimited – unless you stick in a politico-religious straitacket. That is when it starts to lose funding.

  20. From the opening post:
    “These are students from small towns with high schools of under 100 students per class”.

    I want to make sure I’m understanding this right: there are classes with more than 100 students? Like 100 people in the same room??

    “We don’t have 1 astronomy journal at SIUE, so I personally subscribe where I can, and where I can’t I beg PDFs from colleagues…”

    Surely everyone puts preprints on the web these days. Why have to beg anyone?

  21. To address Little Red Ridinhood’s comments. 100 students per class was meant to indicate less than 100 people per graduating year (some high schools, in fact, have less then 100 students combined across grades 9-12!) Small graduating classes economically make it hard to offer a diversity if classes. That said, in cities, we do have classes at high school that have 100+ people in lecture halls (and for good reasons, band classes aspire to be that big).

    And no, not everyone puts preprints on the web. There are lots and lots of papers I need and can’t get.

  22. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    “The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt.” Cicero – 55 BC

    I often wonder if we will be any smarter in another 2000 years.

  23. “To address Little Red Ridinhood’s comments. 100 students per class was meant to indicate less than 100 people per graduating year (some high schools, in fact, have less then 100 students combined across grades 9-12!) Small graduating classes economically make it hard to offer a diversity if classes.”

    Ok, I understand now, thanks.

    And sorry to hear about your troubles getting papers. I’m surprised to hear that people don’t first “publish” on the web. It’s the quickest and most convenient way to spread knowledge and probably the most ecologically responsible too.

  24. It’s an aside but one that might help. My son was a bodyboarding champion, take on the world attitude, pipeline at 16 on his first trip alone overseas. At 18 he came home. The stimulation wasn’t there and as much as his essentially state funded education had utterly failed him (we are utterly committed to that), those last two years in private schools (how we suffered our failure to acknowledge the system was better) had opened his eyes to possibilities. And he was ready to seize on them. A route through 2d and graphic design led him into 3d and architecture and he’s now 2 years in. His path was as wayward as mine, obstacles here, new learnings there. I still learn. I am a social scientist, as far removed from string theory as you can get, but what you opened my eyes to with astronomy Cast was and is so crucial to my place in this world, so, dear Pamela, take heart, one day that son of mine will succumb and latch onto the best little radio show in the burbs. We will prevail and education will inspire and be accessible to all and be free and we will define a better future for ourselves and our children and our friends and their children and our compatriots on this spinning globule and their children. A rave, yes, but a good rave I trust.

  25. Whatever you do, don’t lose hope!!!!!!!!!!!!………………….and commitment

  26. Anything we can all do to help?

    Thought about a fundraiser or something? You seem to have a pretty high profile, might not save the entire education sector, but might bail out your Uni

  27. Makes me wonder what the state and federal governments have been spending our money on all these years.

    Oh. Now I remember. Expanding government. Government, which does not produce anything. Only vacuums more and more out of our pockets so it can grow grow grow.

  28. It is indeed sad the shape we seem to be in and the prospects of fresh new funds are too weak for much optimism.

    But we are a people world. I just came back from a science fair, “Amazing Skies”, that brought perhaps close to 1000 young and old to an art and science museum in McAllen, Texas, where per capita income is quite low. The San Antonio Astronomy Assoc, 250 miles away, came to the event and about 600 were awed by their views of celestial objects (1/4 Moon, Saturn w/ 3 moons and Venus).

    Although sponsorships were down, people still had much in their exhibition booths that all contributed to greater interest in science. The Sun was the primary topic and there is much I could say about all that happened, but the point is that the spirit is alive and young and old can be made to get engaged if clubs, volunteers, retired scientists and engineers will reach out and grow as they contribute more to the needs you and other scientists have in advancing science interest.

    Their is hope because the need for science, math and engineering is very real. Perhaps greater local events such as these could help make a long term difference. Von Braun’s interest in rocketry grew from his youthful club’s activities, IIRC.

  29. At the school I attended, until I ran out of money, I never saw the same instructor more than 2 semesters in a row, if that. There are almost no Tenure tracks, and Profs come in, and I literally had one say this: “Don’t take an IC, I probably won’t be here next semester to help you complete it, and I really don’t care.”

    The program I was involved with did not have a director for 2 years while I attended the school, and the interim director didn’t care because she knew she wasn’t going to get the full position. Those were 2 years without advising direction, and wasted money by myself on classes I should have been advised against taking as I flapped directionless in the wind looking for leadership or direction from the school I was paying te help me with these decisions. 6 years, a ton of debt, and no degree later, I’ve come to hate the school I was attending, as they continue to increase enrollment and decrease instructors and budgets…

    I have no answers. Wish I did. This country should be leading the world in science and technology, but, we constantly fall behind as schools and education are relegated to mere Election Year Buzzwords.

  30. Dr. Gay,
    I would like to link your blog essay to a lesson I am writing on Political Sociology in regards to the power of knowledge, and whether people use their knowledge as power to influence social change or not.

    Thank you,
    Dian Jordan, instructor
    University of Texas at Permian Basin

  31. I do not know what else to do, I hope you keep hoping. . .good luck!


  1. My Mac Mini Crashed Owing to Depression! | Curious Dale - [...] was busy reading an article on Star Stryder about the current economic trends in education. It’s an astronomy blog…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.