Are Some Sciences the New Liberal Arts?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because not everyone with a STEM major is starting a billion-dollar company.
By Sanjena Sathian
If you’re a former English major, you probably often find yourself responding to assertions that your degree is not terribly relevant. You may often mount impassioned defenses on behalf of the increasingly persecuted liberal arts. These days, another group of students and faculty are finding themselves standing up for their disciplines and arguing something similar — that their field teaches foundational thought and critical thinking skills, that it deserves funding. These individuals, though, are scientists.
Those who stand upon this particular soapbox are not computer programmers or engineers or applied scientists. Rather, they’re the practitioners of theoretical and experimental physics or the researchers slogging away at basic science in a lab. Their work might take years, if ever, to touch industry, or it may instead inflect almost philosophical conversations. These are what John Dabiri, Stanford professor and former dean of students at Caltech, calls the “liberal sciences,” and, he says, a “split is imminent” between the career-focused applied types and those we imagine as bespectacled, soft-spoken theorists.
The divides, as Dabiri and others see them, are everywhere — from students’ choices of majors to curricula. At Caltech, all students take “core” classes, including math, physics, chemistry and biology, regardless of their startup dreams; the culture of the school, both former professors and students say, produces significant numbers of Ph.D.s and not as many startup-gunning dropouts. Splits are even likelier at smaller, Tier II and Tier III schools, where students prefer applied degrees that can serve a career quickly. And the view is perhaps most stark when it comes to funding: A 2015 MIT report titled “The Future Postponed” found that federal science funding had sunk from around 10 percent of the U.S. national budget in the late ’60s to less than 4 percent today. The report cites major 2014 scientific breakthroughs, from the discovery of a new particle to the rise of a new supercomputer. None of those eureka moments, the report notes, happened in the U.S.
Bunting thinks studying those “liberal sciences” makes you smarter, but, he adds, his work might be “a waste of time for people who are dead set on working in industry.”
Part of this is being driven by a new sense of urgency among young people who “want to see the fruits of their labor faster,” Dabiri says. “Students vote with their feet.” It’s clear why — anyone with a laptop and some coding skills can launch an app these days, and dreams of becoming the next Zuck are perhaps more tempting than those of becoming the next CERN golden child. And, of course, as experts point out, there’s a desire to make money along the way. Consider the internal struggle of Will Bunting, a Caltech grad in his first year of a physics Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. Buzzwords he drops regarding his work include “black hole physics” and “quantum gravity,” the usual. Bunting tells me that thanks to his father’s career in private wealth management, he thought about the finance route, but physics seduced him, even though it’s “lower in practicality.” He thinks studying those “liberal sciences” makes you smarter, but, he adds, his work might be “a waste of time for people who are dead set on working in industry.”
It wasn’t always like this. A few decades ago, a group in California toiled away at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. There, inventors built the foundations of the computing revolution, probably creating trillions of dollars in value — but never owning the industry like a Microsoft or an IBM. Around the same time, the government poured funding into basic research at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Today, experts say, few opportunities like those exist. Meanwhile, if you walk the halls at Google or Palantir in Silicon Valley, you’ll encounter engineers who mused on computational chemistry in college, and programmers rushing to ship new products who spent their undergrad or even grad school days digging in on quantum physics. You may even find such types doing what Bunting skipped out on, using their advanced quant skills to ride the roller coaster of high frequency trading on Wall Street.
Not everyone thinks the divide is a bad thing, or even happening. Jeremy England, an MIT physicist, believes departments are simply evolving as we learn more about what background different sorts of work require. “You don’t need to learn physics to program,” he says. It might be a sort of “basic playground” for stimulating smart thinking, England says, but he understands the rationale for chopping it from CS students’ requirements. Things are also shifting in other ways, as borders between disciplines fluctuate a bit — for example, England says, biologists are increasingly studying physics.
Still, the angst continues, appropriately enough for any campus problem. For the professors, there’s the constant question of money: Dabiri’s own research on jellyfish and shrimp movements, which he’s now applying to creating alternative energy solutions — and which won him a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” — once landed on a list of frivolous spending, according to the government. And for the students, the age-old WTF-do-I-do-with-my-life question persists. Bunting tells me that he may, one day, “go that route,” toward industry. Jobs in academia are scarce, after all.