Why has the number of students choosing to study nuclear and radiochemistry fallen in recent years?

Declines in the number of academic staff in nuclear and radiochemistry mean that it’s harder for students—at both the undergraduate and graduate-degree level—to find classes and faculty mentors in these topics. Since 2008, efforts to provide scholarships and fellowships to nuclear and radiochemistry students have helped stabilize the situation, but it’s still fragile. With a significant portion of the nation’s expert’s in nuclear and radiochemistry at or nearing retirement age, we could be facing a workforce gap in coming years.

What areas of nuclear and radiochemistry are expected to grow in coming years?

The report’s authoring committee identified several urgent research needs which will require innovative research and scientific expertise within nuclear and radiochemistry. These include nuclear medicine, where researchers are working to develop new radioisotopes and radiopharmaceuticals to allow targeted delivery of drugs to individual cancer cells; nuclear power, where work is underway to develop next generation fuels based on actinides require new chemical separation methods to meet society’s energy demands; and homeland security, where novel methods could help detect the illicit transportation of radioactive materials on a global scale. See Box 2 in the report in brief for more information.

Why is it so difficult to track nuclear and radiochemistry expertise?

At the undergraduate level, there are no specific nuclear and radiochemistry degrees—instead, students major in chemistry and can take advanced coursework in nuclear and radiochemistry and some colleges. This means that our projections of the future supply of bachelor’s level nuclear and radiochemists come from counts of the number of colleges and universities that offer this coursework, and estimates of the number of students who have taken the classes.

Things are no easier at the Ph.D. level. Here, the committee estimated the number of graduates by searching for theses tagged with nuclear and radiochemistry keywords in the ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. However, many students choose to tag their theses with topics such as chemistry, analytical chemistry, or environmental chemistry, even if their projects focused on nuclear and radiochemistry.

How will the partnerships recommended in the report increase nuclear and radiochemistry expertise?

Since nuclear and radiochemistry education and research programs are small and dispersed across the country, strengthening the connections between these groups will help pool resources and expertise and provide greater opportunities for students have access to coursework and laboratory experience. Partnerships between the larger nuclear and radiochemistry programs at universities and national laboratories, and programs of colleges, research institutes, medical facilities, and industry would help ensure an adequate supply of faculty, staff, students and postdoctoral felloes to satisfy both current and future professional and academic needs.

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