Researchers in materials science — physics, chemistry, and engineering — are working on new technologies which could solve some of the biggest problems humans currently face. By making things work better, cost less and run more efficiently, these scientists will enable abundant clean energy production, build better medical implants and safer cars, and design stronger buildings.
Unfortunately, some of those breakthroughs will take longer than they should. One reason is a lack of funding from companies and financiers who prefer the relatively quick product cycles and investment returns to be had in the IT industry. Materials science innovation also takes far longer than writing software code and requires larger capital expenses.
But perhaps a bigger challenge to materials science is the fierce competition for talented employees. Science-minded students are drawn to high profile IT companies that build the latest gadgets or operate the social networks that permeate their lives. IT companies also generally offer better salaries – approximately 30 percent more for a senior program manager ($134,000), compared to a senior research scientist ($100,000), according to a search on Glassdoor. That research job would typically require a PhD, whereas the program manager requires only a bachelor’s degree or, at most, a master’s degree.
In addition to higher salaries, many tech jobs also offer locations in big coastal cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston, which adds to the appeal for younger people. By comparison, the states with the highest concentrations of materials science jobs include Delaware, Minnesota, Ohio and Virginia. And even beyond the IT sector, staid old industries like banking and manufacturing are intensively recruiting tech-savvy employees, siphoning off additional potential workers.
And yet there’s something special about making something physical. We need to do a better job showing younger people that materials sciences are important as ever. It won’t be easy. Today, we are immersed in a digital world, filled with apps, games, and social media. Few people think about the science that was needed to invent their handheld devices, their crisp full color displays, or their nearly unbreakable screens.
Many of the solutions lie in education. We need to make materials science and chemistry training more relevant and less academic. Much of the work toward a PhD involves writing papers and grants. These requirements may serve the needs of the university or its professors — who have an outsized influence over their students’ future — but they provide few opportunities to build the actual skills needed in the industry. Better partnerships with industry could weave relevant hands-on work into curricula, while providing equipment and other resources to help prepare students for their careers. Developing leadership programs and more results-oriented internships could help inspire more young people to study chemistry and physics.
The demand for computer science professionals shows no sign of letting up, and clearly their work is important. But if we can’t find a way to fill the equally important materials science jobs, crucial innovation will continue to languish and industrial companies will struggle to reach their full potential.