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Alarm sounded over declining US radiation professional workforce

Written by: David Kramer
Published on: May 6, 2024

Radiation Science

Photo Credit: Getty Images

“We’ve never had a baby boom before, and we’ve never seen the loss of such a large proportion of the workforce in such a short time,” says Wayne Newhauser, a medical-physics professor at Louisiana State University. Newhauser led the review that makes up the December 2022 special issue of the Journal of Applied Clinical Medical Physics (JACMP); the review provides a snapshot of the status of the major radiation professional workforces in the US.

Workforce shortages are compounded by newly trained scientists who choose to leave their fields for other opportunities. Charles Ferguson, director of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, has heard reports of radiation professionals trained at the Department of Energy’s Hanford nuclear site in Washington State being snapped up by Amazon and Microsoft for jobs that are unrelated to their field. “People in these professions are smart and trainable, and they can quickly tool up to work in the technology industry,” he notes.

A lack of interest from incoming students has led to the closure of many academic programs in most of the radiation specialties, say Newhauser and others, and has resulted in a lack of capacity to train new professionals.

Werner Rühm, who directed Helmholtz Munich’s Institute for Radiation Protection until its closure last year, says Germany has also experienced declining interest in radiation sciences. Germany’s renunciation of nuclear power has led many people there to conclude that radiation protection is no longer necessary. The country’s Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety, and Consumer Protection is working to shore up competence in the sciences, in part by communicating its continued importance, Rühm says. “Radiotherapy is the most successful cancer therapy to date. To develop it further, you need competence in radiation science.”

The exact size of the professional radiation workforce is hard to determine, in part because of its fragmentation among different fields and its sometimes ambiguous definitions and qualifications. The JACMP review, which took the authors seven years to complete on a pro bono basis, includes estimates that vary in fidelity depending on the field; some of the radiation specialties do not keep figures at all.

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