T. Neil Sroka: Science programs need a boost

From the headlines that screamed of the explosive growth of the GW endowment to the little teaser in the upper right-hand corner that celebrated the men’s basketball team’s emergence as a top-10 team in the country, even a casual observer of Monday’s Hatchet front page (Feb. 6) would see an up-and-coming, national research University emerging before their very eyes.

However, to be fair, the wealth of achievements listed in Monday’s Hatchet indicating institutional improvement shouldn’t surprise us. After all, most students who have entered the University in the past few years have come in knowing that GW’s a school on the up-and-up, an institution where the average SAT scores of each new class are rising almost as quickly as the new buildings that will house their beds and their lecture rooms. GW, as I have said to many over the past few years, has no place to go but up.

Unfortunately, these optimistic predictions and projections are based on an academically slanted view of the University’s advancements and improvements. Sure, for those of us studying the social sciences, business, and to a lesser extent, the humanities, the University is improving at a break-neck pace. But for those studying something else, particularly the physical sciences, such as chemistry and physics, the GW the rest of us know might as well be another school.

GW’s chemistry and physics departments, once among the crown jewels of the University’s research programs, now sit distant from their former prominence – and seemingly forgotten by administrators. Both departments are housed in Corcoran Hall, the first building GW built in Foggy Bottom back in 1924, and utilize facilities that, to a shocking degree, have not seemed to change too much since then.

The earth and environmental sciences, often forgotten components of the physical sciences, have fared far worse at GW. Stripped of its departmental status in 2004 due to budget cutbacks, the department dedicated to the study of the only known life-bearing planet was simply eliminated, its remaining tenured faculty banished to departments disconnected from their work.

But facilities and budget cuts are only part of the story underlying the heartbreaking state of some of the sciences at GW. Despite a good-faith effort to overcome the notorious under-representation of women in the sciences with a “Women in the Sciences and Medicine” program, the dearth of female faculty in GW’s physical science labs is more than disheartening. A brief look at department Web sites shows women in only two of 12 faculty positions in chemistry and just three of nearly 35 active faculty appointments in physics.

Fortunately, fixing the sorry state of the physical sciences at GW is possible. For their part, University administrators and faculty administrative bodies seem to recognize the difficulties facing many of the sciences at GW and appear to be making their improvement an institutional priority. A key indicator of this was Tuesday’s announcement of the University’s new 20-year campus plan (see “GW outlines growth,” p. 1), which put the construction of a state-of-the-art, 300,000- to 500,000-square foot science facility on 23rd street at the top of a very large development wish list. While it may be between five and seven years before GW’s scientists can begin working in this much-needed space, its prominent position in the campus plan suggests that administrators understand how essential upgrades to science facilities are to the University’s overall improvement.

The problem of the demographic makeup of GW physical science faculty, while fundamentally a departmental issue, may also be corrected with increased University support for the sciences as a whole. A significant improvement in University support for chemistry and physics research, for example, could make GW more attractive to a wider variety of potential faculty members and ultimately assist substantially in the diversification of those who teach and conduct research in our science labs.

In the end, while University commitments to improve the physical sciences at GW give good reason to be bullish on the future of the school as a whole, returning these disciplines to solid ground will ultimately require the commitment and dedication of the current student body and future alumni base to ensure the administration follows through. While it might be surprising to some, the fate of GW and its sciences rest hand-in-hand and will require our present and future vigilance to ensure its success.

-The writer, a senior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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