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Female, minority physical scientists needed to maintain U.S. edge

BY CHELSEA ANNE YOUNG

The United States cannot maintain its position as a technological leader without increased participation of women and minorities, says Stanford University's Arthur Bienenstock, a physicist, professor and 2008 president of the American Physical Society.

"I think we need a large increase in the number of physics majors in general. And we can't afford to have almost all of them be white men," Bienenstock said. "It's just too small a portion of the population and it's growing smaller."

Practically speaking, the pool of white males cannot accommodate the number of physicists necessary to power a technology sector competitive on the international stage, said Bienenstock, a professor of materials science and engineering and of applied physics.

Bienenstock talked about women in science recently at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

The dearth of physics majors is caused partly by a lack of capable secondary school teachers, Bienenstock said. "Less than a third of the teachers teaching physics in the United States have majored in physics."

"Physics is the basis of a lot of technology, so we've got to change that," he added.

In order to maintain adequate numbers of physicists to power technological advances, said Bienenstock, more women and minorities need to choose physics as a career.

To effect this change, Bienenstock suggested that the curricula of high school and college physics classes be redesigned to provide examples relevant to the interests of young women.

Moreover, university physics departments should ensure that female candidates and faculty are treated equitably by offering "thoughtful and welcoming childbearing and childcare policies," including maternity leave, stopping the tenure clock for maternity, convenient scheduling of classes and meetings, and good, affordable childcare facilities, said Bienenstock.

A diversity of backgrounds leads to the diversity of ideas necessary for the innovation that will maintain the country's technological dominance, he said.

The minivan example

The classic example of the benefits of diversity is the Ford Windstar, a minivan designed primarily by women, said Bienenstock.

In 1997, Ford Motor Co. recruited 30 female engineers to design a van specifically for women with children. This group of engineers came to be known as the "Windstar Moms." Ford has continued to employ women for other projects specifically targeted at the female demographic.

Issues of gender and racial equality have been a long-standing interest for Bienenstock, who served as Stanford's first faculty affirmative action officer from 1972 to 1977. Bienenstock also led the drive in 1972 to eliminate from Stanford's founding grant a clause limiting the number of female students to 500.

"In the seventies, when I was faculty affirmative action officer, my goals were just inspiring women to achieve their potential," said Bienenstock. However, after serving as an adviser to the Clinton administration on science and technology, "my viewpoint changed in the sense that I saw the benefit wasn't just for the women and minorities, it was for the whole country," said Bienenstock.

Bienenstock served for three years as the associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In that capacity, he helped produce the influential report, Ensuring a Strong U.S. Scientific, Technical and Engineering Workforce in the 21st Century, released in 2000.

"We showed pretty effectively that if the nation fails to have the participation of women and underrepresented minorities, the science and technology workforce will shrink, whereas historically it has always risen as a fraction of the workforce," said Bienenstock.

Although he served for many years as the director of Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Bienenstock is now finishing up his last physics paper and plans to focus his energies on science policy rather than physics research. He is now the special assistant to Stanford President John Hennessy for federal research policy.

"My goal is to ensure wise federal policies that keep research healthy," said Bienenstock. "Increasing the numbers of women and minorities in science is an important part of that."

Chelsea Anne Young is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.