The cost of learning STEM

Sci-tech editors Jessie Dolliver and Kevin Agnew explore the ways in which the field of STEM could be made more accessible.

Science is an expensive endeavour, there’s no getting around it. Whether it’s conducting experiments to determine the elemental composition of a comet in space, or trial studies on treating infectious diseases using a whole host of model animals that must be bred and maintained, there is the cost of research. These come in many different forms and most of the high impact research being done in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) requires the use of the most high-tech equipment available to ensure reliable results.

But it’s not just research that incurs high costs. Educating the next generation of scientists can put a real strain on universities and schools, which must provide laboratories  where budding scientists can make their first ventures into practical experimentation.

The cost of science can affect not only institutions, but also the individuals. Students face financial burdens at every level of their education. STEM subjects require expensive textbooks to supplement course material, many re-issued in new editions each year. For students of natural sciences, field trips are required for a full understanding of ecology, botany, zoology, and geography. Most scientific conferences are hugely expensive to attend. The recent World Forum on Natural Capital, the first of its kind, required a £795 registration fee for the two day event. Attending academic conferences is a necessity for young scientists wishing to network and participate actively in their field.

These costs are prohibitively dear for early career scientists without disposable income. All the small expenses of studying compound this problem: the cost of lab coats, dissection kits, manuals, lab glasses, and accessing journal articles kept behind expensive pay-walls. Taken together, these act as a deterrent to those from poor backgrounds pursuing a future in STEM. Science becomes an exploit for the rich rather than a way of thinking or exploring the world.

Services and technology are coming to make up more and more of the economy.  These rely on STEM researchers with qualifications to expand. This problem isn’t going away anytime soon. If Ireland and other wealthy countries wish to continue high economic growth, they must first find ways to remove many of these barriers towards the accessibility of science and other STEM fields. Doing so will allow more people to involve themselves in these fields and acquire the necessary skills and experience to practice science. This must be done without burdening the institutions that teach these skills or the individuals themselves. This editorial aims to outline some of these barriers to the accessibility of STEM and propose solutions to remove these.

The Cost of Learning STEM

The cost of training the next generation of scientists can be as expensive as the scientific research itself: students pay tuition fees each year but on top of that, the materials required for their STEM course, usually textbooks, equipment and  laboratory manuals can be a financial burden. Ireland would do well to mirror Germany, where a free third-level education is offered to all students and open up STEM courses for all students interested in them.

The problems of expensive textbooks and an unengaging science curriculum in schools would be improved through better use of online learning resources which have multiplied in recent years. Many of these resources contain high quality, educational material that gives a solid introduction to subjects. The website Khan Academy provides a whole range of educational videos and tutorials on different topics and is particularly good for STEM subjects. CoderDojo, an organisation of programming clubs, teaches school pupils how to code. These sites have seen great success when used in individual schools. The Irish government would see massive benefits from making use of resources such as these in a general system of online resources for science education. This would avoid the costs of buying textbooks by having an online repository of information for schools to use.

The high costs of accessing academic papers, about $30 for each paper,  have lead to more pirating of papers. Daniel Himmelstein, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and his team have found that the website Sci-Hub can provide access to more than two-thirds of all scholarly articles. Himmelstein argues that such a scale of pirating means the  “beginning of the end” for pay-walled research. Publishers have had issues with stopping pirating, as “the more protective the publishers are, the more difficult they make legitimate access”. It is, perhaps, inevitable that the subscription model of publishing is going to end and that more open models of publishing will replace it.

The Cost of Research in STEM

One of the chief anxieties of any academic scientist is the competition for  the grants and laboratories  necessary for research. This problem requires greater commitment by government and technology industries to invest in research and support to institutions trying to expand their facilities. Many qualified and experienced scientists suffer from poor job security. This is due to the instability of research funding and can cause large and inconvenient gaps in research.

Often, the cost of carrying out research in science is multiplied by the everyday equipment needed to conduct research. In a chemistry research group, one can witness countless latex gloves, glass pipettes and vials discarded each day. These everyday instruments, although vital to doing research, end up multiplying the costs for an individual research laboratory and can eat through most of a research group’s grant. Even clock glasses, some of the smallest pieces of glassware, can cost about €80.

Granted many of these instruments are not reusable, and for good reason. Nobody wants to reuse a pair of gloves contaminated with a carcinogenic reagent. However, implementing better recycling practices can cut these costs: having the same glass pipette assigned to a particular reagent or having proper inventory databases in place for each lab to keep track of equipment, chemicals and materials. There are now laboratories which practice “green chemistry”,  using minimal amounts of solvents or replacing environmentally harmful solvents with water. If these practices were followed more widely, STEM would become more efficient and cost-effective.

The continued progress of STEM goes hand-in-hand with making it more accessible and is a necessity for Ireland’s future economic prosperity. Researchers require firm commitment from the government through investment and support. We, as researchers, must also engage in responsible practices to lower costs and reduce some of these financial barriers to scientific education, innovation and discovery.

Co-written by Jessie Dolliver and Kevin Agnew