Expert Report

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Q&A with the Committee Chair >>

Despite the growing use of nuclear medicine, the potential expansion of nuclear power generation, and the urgent need to protect the nation against nuclear threats and manage nuclear wastes generated in past decades, the number of students opting to specialize in nuclear and radiochemistry has decreased significantly over the past few decades. Now, with many experts in these topics approaching retirement age, action is needed to avoid a workforce gap in these critical areas, for example by building student interest in these careers, expanding the educational capacity of universities and colleges, and providing more sector specific on-the-job training.

Key Messages

  • A program or system to gather and track the metrics necessary to assess supply and demand, would make it easier to measure changes resulting from government and academic efforts to boost the nuclear and radiochemistry workforce.
  • Although tracking expertise in nuclear and radiochemistry has proven challenging, the committee was able to project supply and demand for radiochemistry expertise over the next five years. The projections indicate that given increased demand in sectors such as nuclear medicine and nuclear energy, the steady but low number of graduates is not conducive for sustained growth of the nuclear and radiochemistry field.
  • Educational programs are needed to develop experts for critical and time-sensitive jobs. In many sectors, the need for specialists or “on-the-job” training—whether for new Bachelor’s degree holders or for mid-career scientists changing fields—cannot be met by the traditional academic system, because of the immediacy or classified nature of the work. Other types of educational program are needed to supply these types of training.
  • Given the relatively small population of nuclear and radiochemists in the United States, it is essential to strengthen connections between current experts, and those who will supply and will need expertise in the future. Formalized collaborative partnerships for research and education in nuclear and radiochemistry should be established between universities, national laboratories, and relevant industrial sectors to help ensure an adequate supply of faculty, staff, students and postdoctoral fellows to satisfy current and future professional and academic needs.
  • In the university setting, academic research programs in nuclear and radiochemistry are typically found within chemistry departments. However, out of over 100 chemistry graduate departments across the United States, the committee identified only 13 departments that have two or more faculty members who specialize in nuclear and radiochemistry and offer one or more courses devoted entirely or in part to nuclear and radiochemistry.
  • D. graduates in fields such as nuclear engineering, nuclear physics , or general, inorganic, or physical chemistry could potentially fill gaps in the nuclear and radiochemistry workforce. However, these students usually don’t have the specialized knowledge necessary for a career in nuclear or radiochemistry. On the job training is one option to equip students to carry out certain specialized roles in the nuclear and radiochemistry workforce, but such training does not provide the same quality of preparation and expertise as that of a Ph.D. specifically in nuclear and radiochemistry.
  • Recent efforts have stabilized the number of Ph.D.’s and faculty members in nuclear and radiochemistry, but the situation is fragile. About 10 percent of the nation’s experts in nuclear and radiochemistry are at or nearing retirement age and it is unlikely that there will be enough new graduates to fill this workforce gap. Should there be major funding cuts or policy changes, the U.S. supply of nuclear and radiochemistry expertise may be inadequate to meet changing needs.
  • Since the 1970s, a declining number of academic staff in nuclear and radiochemistry has led to decreases in the number of U.S. citizens with training in the fields of nuclear security, medicine, energy, environmental management, and basic research—and in the number of U.S. colleges and universities that offer research programs in these fields.
  • The committee commends current and past efforts to support nuclear and radiochemistry workforce education and development, for example by setting up summer schools to help supplement inadequacies in undergraduate education. However, these various initiatives were created independently by different federal funding agencies, each with a slightly different emphasis on outcome. Therefore, there is great potential for gaps in funding and no comprehensive plan to address these issues, and it is not clear that currently favorable funding levels will continue.
  • With a large number of specialized nuclear and radiochemistry experts eligible to retire in the next five to ten years, a process is necessary to minimize the impact of losing many years of experience. Developing procedures to formalize knowledge retention and transfer would help overcome this challenge, especially at the national laboratories.