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CHAPTER SIX E DUCATION IN BIOLOGY Education in the life sciences is seen as an enormous undertaking when its full national scope is considered. The pyramid of numbers begins with unreckoned millions of elementary school children whose first exposure to things scientific comes from experience with living things. It continues through the approximately 2.5 million high school students enrolled in formal biology courses each year, and perhaps 200,000 who receive some formal exposure to the life sciences in college. The next level comprises the 25,000 students who, each year, complete baccalaureate training with concentration in one of the life sciences. At the apex of the pyramid are the approximately 3,500 new Ph.D.'s, 8,000 M.D.'s, and several thousand other life science professionals (dentists, foresters, and others) per year who are the next generation of practitioners and research workers. Our present concern rests primarily with education in biology rather than that for the biology-based professions. Eighty percent of Americans who graduate from high school take their only formal science courses in biology. At the college level, the life sciences attract a high proportion of those who enroll in single science courses while majoring in nonscientific disciplines. Thus, biology fulfills a unique role in 357
THE LIFE SCIENCES providing large numbers of our citizens with their only view of science and its impact upon the problems of our society. This opportunity also entails an obligation of professional biologists to provide effective training for the teachers who are entrusted with this task. The heterogeneous academic system that provides training for the research workers and teachers who make up the community of more than 80,000 professional biologists in the United States is difficult to describe. As we noted earlier, the life sciences are uniquely diverse: Biologists belong to more different professional societies and read more different journals than do other scientists; the life sciences are taught in departments ranging in degree of specialization from biology to forest pathology. While this rich diversity may be useful to society, it adds up to a system that escapes easy characterization. One difficulty is measurement of the extent and efficiency of research training. Almost all the 3,500 Ph.D.'s earned annually in the life sciences are awarded by 145 institutions; but a much larger number train students at the master's and baccalaureate levels, and these play a critical role in forming the intellectual backgrounds and experimental habits of many potential research workers. We cannot be certain of how many of the 25,000 college majors in the life sciences graduated annually enter upon Ph.D. programs, but it is probably in the neighborhood of 7,500. Only about half of these complete the highest degree and enter the national pool of potential research workers. The attrition is difficult to measure, but, even among the holders of highly prized Woodrow Wilson fellowships in 10 distinguished graduate schools in the United States, only about half of those who began doctoral studies in the biological sciences between 1958 and 1960 had earned the Ph.D. degree by June 1966. Figures for the other sciences are comparably low. A subsequent, less well-measured and less understood attrition is that which causes fully trained biologists to fail to function as independent investigators. One might conclude from these facts that graduate education is an inefficient process, and, in a sense, this may be true. Inefficiency is in- evitable in a system in which even some able students find along the way that they lack the interest or drive to carry through a successful program of independent research, or that their strongest motivations lie elsewhere. A rigorous selection procedure at the beginning of graduate training, which would guarantee a 100-percent yield of research scientists, would probably also eliminate many of those who later become the most productive creative scientists. Several features of research training in the life sciences present a pattern quite different from that found in other disciplines. Because of the hetero
EDUCATION IN BIOLOGY geneity of biology, graduate training is often offered in small, relatively specialized departments. Most departments granting the Ph.D. in the basic medical sciences have only six to eight faculty members; this is often true also of departments in schools of liberal arts or agriculture in which the life sciences are relatively fragmented into departments of genetics, micro- biology, wildlife management, and so on. The type of training received by doctoral students in such departments is inevitably strikingly different from that provided in coherent departments of biology. The tendency to merge relatively specialized departments into departments of biology has grown during the last decade, as discussed in Chapter 4. The fraction of students trained in these more inclusive departments, however, has not increased, owing to the dramatic increase in Ph.D. programs in the basic medical sciences during the same period. Perhaps in part because of the "specialness" of many graduate programs, and perhaps also because of the diversity of demands placed on the investi- gator by a multiplicity of techniques and experimental systems, it has become traditional over the past decade for experimental biologists to follow their Ph.D. programs with postdoctoral training. In 1966-1967, 5,223 biologists were postdoctoral fellows in the departments surveyed by this committee. Over three fourths of these were supported by national postdoctoral fellowship programs, primarily from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. This pattern.contrasts with that in mathematics and the social sciences, in which a much smaller percentage of Ph.D.'s undertake postdoctoral appointments. The number of persons undertaking and completing advanced training in the life sciences has been increasing dramatically. The number of Ph.D.'s awarded annually in biology more than doubled in the decade from 1955 to 1965. Annual output had increased at about 7 percent per year for several decades but rose sharply after 1964; the increment in 1969 over 1968 was about 12 percent. To contend with the rise in demand for trained biologists, the fellowship and traineeship programs of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health supported growing numbers of students until fiscal year 1969. These programs should con- tinue to grow as the demands of the educational system as well as those of the pure and applied research establishments grow to keep pace with a growing and increasingly complex society. Moreover, quickening excite- ment in biological research itself-occasioned by a decade of especially dramatic progress produced an unusual shift in the career plans of gifted young people. A recent survey by the American Council on Education showed that whereas, in 1961, 3.2 percent of all freshmen entering Stanford University intended to major in the biological sciences, that figure had