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Students at élite universities are getting that message loud and clear. Melisa Gao, 20, is a senior majoring in chemistry at Princeton, but when recruiters from consulting firms and investment banks showed up on campus last fall, she went on several interviews, and she will take a job as a consultant after graduation. She says, "They love the fact that science majors can think analytically, that we're comfortable with numbers." Increasingly, science majors love those companies back. Gao says, "There are no guarantees if you go into science, especially as a woman. You have to worry about getting tenure. Or if you go into industry, it takes you a long time to work your way up the ladder." If you go into finance or consulting instead, "by the time your roommate is out of grad school, you've been promoted, plus you're making a lot more money, while they're stuck in lab."
Even at M.I.T., the U.S.'s premier engineering school, the traditional career path has lost its appeal for some students. Says junior Nicholas Pearce, a chemical-engineering major from Chicago: "It's marketed as--I don't want to say dead end but sort of 'O.K., here's your role, here's your lab, here's what you're going to be working on.' Even if it's a really cool product, you're locked into it." Like Gao, Pearce is leaning toward consulting. "If you're an M.I.T. grad and you're going to get paid $50,000 to work in a cubicle all day--as opposed to $60,000 in a team setting, plus a bonus, plus this, plus that--it seems like a no-brainer."
Another problem has been the tarnished image of science itself. Catchphrases that felt inspiring in the 1950s--"Better living through chemistry," "Atoms for peace"--have a darker connotation today. Du Pont, which invented nylon, became known as well for napalm. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island soured Americans on nuclear power. Shuttle crashes and a defective Hubble telescope made NASA look inept. Substances from DDT to PCBs to ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons proved more dangerous than anyone realized. Drug disasters like the thalidomide scandal made some people nervous about the unintended consequences of new drug treatments. It's in that context of skepticism toward science that some reasonable questions have been raised lately about genetically modified foods and the scope of human embryonic work.
Even so, the U.S. commitment to science might have remained strong if the Soviet Union hadn't collapsed in the late '80s. "We don't have this shadow of Sputnik or the cold war overhanging us," says Stanford's Hennessy, "and we need a different form of inspiration." In fact, says Robert Birgeneau, a physicist and chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, it already exists, if only we would recognize it. "We have a different kind of war, an economic war," he says. "The importance of investing in long-term research for winning that war hasn't been understood."