Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Funding Nuclear Engineering Education:

More on the Issues

I recently had several excellent comments on my March 2, 2012 blog on funding for nuclear engineering education. In that blog, I had expressed my dismay that DOE and NRC the 2013 Federal budget request had zeroed out funding for nuclear engineering education programs. I had expressed the hope that funding would be restored by Congress as it considers the budget request and had suggested that people make their views known to their Senators and Congressmen/women.

The comments went beyond what I had written. Specifically, they provided some thoughts on the issues associated with industry funding of nuclear engineering programs. All of the commenters bring expertise beyond my own to the table. Since I'm not sure all the readers of the original blog will go back and read the comments, I thought I'd highlight some of the thoughts in a new blog, and add a couple more of my own thoughts.

(Only one commenter provided his full name, so I can only give credit by name to Rod Adams, whose nuclear credentials are well known in the blogging community and beyond. Another commenter reported being a member of the Nuclear Engineering Student Delegation last year, so has been actively involved in the debate on supporting nuclear engineering education. A third commenter brought insights about INPO's activities to the discussion.)

Among the key thoughts expressed by the commenters (rephrased in my own words) are the following (but I urge you to go back to the posting for the full comments, which are expressed a bit more colorfully than the wording below):

• It is inconsistent of the Administration to take credit for supporting new nuclear power plant construction--which guarantees that we will need more skilled nuclear engineers for the foreseeable future--while at the same time cutting off the academic pipeline.

• The government believes that they have "primed the pump" enough, as enrollments have increased. The government thinks it is now industry's turn to continue the needed support, and "political demagogues" consider funding nuclear education to be a form of "corporate welfare"--even though the money goes to students and universities, not to corporations. Having funding tied to a specific industry--particularly the nuclear industry, which is not universally loved--makes it an even harder sell.

• It would be great for the nuclear industry to step up to the plate by increasing its support for nuclear engineering programs and not rely so much on the government. By and large, however, industry is under pressure to control costs and justify expenses, and it is a hard sell in the boardrooms when the goal is a rather nebulous "assuring a pipeline of trained engineers."

• One comment noted that INPO does provide substantial support to nuclear engineering students, but cited a further issue--that only about 20% of nuclear engineering graduates go to work in the nuclear power industry. This fact makes it difficult for the industry to justify providing support. (Note that this commenter pointed out that many of the other graduates go into federal government or the national labs, or into related fields, such as nuclear medicine--all of which to me would be a further argument for Federal support.)

• The same commenter noted that the situation is different when looking at the associate degree level. There is increasing support for industry for nuclear training in technical schools. However, this doesn't address the need for nuclear engineers.

• Of particular interest to me was one comment about NSF funding for students. I hadn't thought about NSF funding for a long time. As far as I know, NSF funds students in just about all other science and engineering disciples. Nuclear engineering has long been separated out to be funded by DOE and NRC (and, as the commenter notes, NNSA). The commenter notes that the reason is that NSF "doesn't have the personnel to judge the merits of the applications." I'm not sure if that is the full reason or if there are other factors, but that is not important for this discussion. What is important is that the fact that nuclear engineering is treated differently by the US government tends to lead to disparities such as we are now seeing, where the nuclear engineering support programs are treated differently than those of other disciplines.

These comments provide excellent additional perspective to what I wrote, and I thank all the commenters for taking the time to send their thoughts. All of them are strong supporters of nuclear engineering education and echoed my concern about the funding of nuclear engineering programs and the importance of support, in one way or another. I can only hope that our collective voice will be heard.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting on this issue. If only nuclear engineers could get support from traditional educational funding opportunities, like through NSF, then they could be treated as other students.