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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Seek more females in science, not bidding wars”

    Over the weekend, I volunteered at an Economic Science Association conference held at the Westward Look Resort. Two trends stuck out – women were sharply outnumbered, and lots of talented foreign professors represented universities from their own countries, rather than from American schools.

    Neither is good for the U.S. A diverse faculty is good for ideas, for creativity and for students. We should be getting more women interested in science and attracting more foreign professors to the U.S.

    But a National Science Foundation grant awarded to the UA to hire female faculty has the potential to get it wrong. While the $3.3 grant is good for the UA, it may just encourage U.S. universities to fight with each other over scarce female professors.

    On the surface, the grant, to be spent over five years, has a noble purpose. If the UA can hire more capable female science faculty members, it will benefit everyone at the university. No science-related field at the UA has more than 40 percent female tenured faculty, and the low is a sad zero percent.

    But where will the new faculty come from? Other universities. More likely? American universities. And when a national organization is paying money to redistribute talented female faculty from other universities to a single one, the country doesn’t gain.

    The NSF as an organization aims to promote scientific research and, more generally, science. It has about $5 billion per year to distribute. Many professors on campus rely on NSF grants for their research.

    But recently it has been met with funding decreases, including a $100 million decrease for 2005. At a time when the competitiveness of foreign academic institutions is catching up with the U.S., we are backing off on our spending. So it is especially important to use money wisely.

    While this grant is undeniably good for the UA, this is not the best use of scarce money for the country as a whole.

    There are only so many qualified female science academics, and universities are already pressured to hire equitably. As a result, talented females often get attractive offers. At the conference I attended, there were fliers looking to hire new faculty members. One flier put it best by bolding “”females are especially encouraged to apply.””

    To be sure, fighting over talented females will bid their salary up, which may inspire more to join the field. But this is a second order effect, and getting more women into science earlier is more important.

    What grants like the NSF grant should be doing instead is bolstering the pipelines that may lead women to academia. We need to get more females interested in science at an early age. Some graduate students become professors, but to get there we need to encourage more female undergraduate science majors. And so we need to get more females interested in science in high school, middle school and even grade school.

    People who complain about gender inequality often make a critical mistake: They assume that there is a pool of women science academics equally talented and equally large as the pool of male science academics. When women aren’t as prevalent or well paid, it must be because of discrimination, they say. However, the real fault is that the pool of women isn’t as big. So focusing on hiring alone simply misses the point. We need to grow the pool.

    Instead of focusing on hiring, which creates a bidding war between universities, why not create more grants for females instead? Why not reward professors for hiring female undergraduates in their labs, or recruiting females from general education classes to become science majors?

    Or up the ante. What about hiring foreign female science academics? This can help solve two problems at once by getting foreign professors to the U.S. and hiring more females.

    As the conference elucidated for me, we should be concentrating our resources on making the U.S. the best place in the world to research, teach and study. Part of that is having a diverse faculty.

    But redistributing doesn’t solve the problem. If the grant creates new young female science academics, it will be a success. If the UA just hires female scientists away from other universities, we’re not doing anyone any favors.

    Ryan Johnson is an economics and international studies senior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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