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For years now, captains of industry, political leaders, and university professors have been crying out that Western countries are lacking a steady stream of young people educated in exact sciences. As a consequence, Western Europe and the US will no longer be able to keep up with advancements in industry and science, and will, over time, have to give up a large share of their wealth and social infrastructure.

In the Netherlands the decrease in numbers of engineers and exact scientists is flagrant. Feverishly ministers of government are seeking ways to increase these numbers. Of course, whatever idea surfaces, it should not cost too much money. It isn't for nothing that university budgets have been cut year after year for over twenty years, while at the same time being confronted with an enormous increase in numbers of students.

The latest idea by the ministry of education is to offer a student in exact sciences a bonus of 1500 euros if he or she (but mostly he) will graduate fast enough. This plan costs 3 million euros for six years. And, of course, universities that will pay out this sum, have to deal with lots of administrative hogwash.

The whole bonus idea is ridiculous. Of course it will not work. Does the minister really think that an eighteen-year-old who is pondering whether to study Art History or Anthropology, will choose a study of Mathematics when a bonus of 1500 euros can be expected after five years? Or that a person who picks a study of Law because lawyers can rake in huge amounts of moolah, will study Physics for a tip?

Eighteen-Year-Old #1: "I am going to study law. I am going to goof off for the next four years. Then I'll be a lawyer like my father. By the time I am 35 I am making over 200K a year."
EYO #2: "Oh yeah?! Well, I am going to be a physicist! I am going to study my ass off for the next five years! Then I am going to do contract research! By the time I am 35 I'll be making 50K a year!"
EYO #1: "Are you insane? Why would you do that to yourself?"
EYO #2: "Well, there is something you don't seem to know."
EYO #1: "What is that?"
EYO #2: "Get this, when I graduate after five years, I get 1500 euros! Well? What do you say to that?"

Not only is the proposed bonus a farce, it is also the least return on investment I have ever heard of. Think of it: the government thinks it will spend about 500K a year on this. That's enough for 330 students. However, that includes all those students that are choosing exact sciences even without the bonus. All the money spent on these students is money wasted (as far as the aim of the government is concerned).

Truth is, exact scientists and engineers are not motivated by money. If they were, they would choose a different subject, such as Law, Medicine, or Economics. Sure, with a study in exact sciences you will be able to earn a reasonably good living, but you'll have to study hard, work hard, and you're bound to be at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, making money for the lawyers and economists who are at the top of the food-chain. The main, and probably only reason a student will go for exact sciences, is that the subject matter fascinates him.

If the government really wants to stimulate young people to go into exact sciences, it should focus on those that have the talent and the interest, but that choose a different subject because there is more money and prestige found there. The problem is that those that have the talent to study exact sciences, are usually very well able to study anything else too. And the choice between an interesting subject on the one hand, and wealth and an easy life on the other hand, is a hard one.

Therefore, the government should make it more worthwhile to study exact sciences. And how should they do that? By turning the departments of exact sciences at universities in places that attract students. By ensuring that there are plenty motivated teachers. By making available modern equipment, a well-stocked library, and good facilities. By allowing students extra time for research. By increasing scholarships so that the students won't need to work in bars and fast-food joints for at least 20 hours a week, just to make ends meet.

For starters, the amount the minister wants to spend on the bonus-program, should simply be used to rehire some of the members of staff that were fired in recent years because of all the cutbacks. A larger staff means more contact hours, more research, and better education. For all students. That is money well spent.

Of course, it should be only the beginning.

August 7, 2004

© 2004 by Pieter Spronck