Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hard Times for Physics Departments Everywhere

In the APS News ,December 2011 (Volume 20, Number 11) the Back PageThe Economics of Education: Closing Undergraduate Physics Programs, by Theodore Hodapp describes a pretty dismal state of affairs for physics Departments in this country. The heart of the matter is given in this paragraph:

These recent decisions in a number of states indicate that the era, if it ever existed, of a program existing because it is unthinkable not to offer physics is over. Dominating the current academic landscape are huge numbers of business, psychology, communications, and life-sciences majors. Physics undergraduate degrees accounted for 0.88%2 of all majors in 1966. Now they account for 0.32%. Figure 1 shows how physics has fared compared to the aggregate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. The total number of physics graduates is roughly the same as it was in the late 60’s at around 6,000, but as a fraction of the undergraduate degrees it has fallen by almost a factor of three from its former standing. Further, if you normalize the data to the US population, which increases at roughly 1% per year, the data indicate that other majors have successfully lured away students who previously would have majored in physics. As a colleague recently said to me, “Who is better equipped to deal with the challenging problems that currently face our society–physics or psychology majors?” Psychology graduates increased from roughly 17,000 to 100,000 in those same four and half decades.

All pretty sobering stuff. Have a look at the full article for all the details.