Researchers Dispute Notion That America Lacks Scientists and Engineers in the Chronicle of Higher Education is a fine example of how thinking that scientific or engineering degree’s are like technical training degrees will lead you to say all sorts of funny things. Yep, it’s another edition of Nitpicker’s Paradiso.
The article begins with some fun stuff which is ripe for nitpicking:
At a hearing of a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives science committee, Michael S. Teitelbaum, vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, told lawmakers….
Federal policy encourages an overproduction of science professionals, he said, because when federal support for research goes up, universities use the extra money to subsidize more graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Yet the number of permanent jobs in academe and industry do not necessarily climb as a result of that spending, he said. “This disconnect between demand and supply means there are substantially more science graduate students and postdocs than can find attractive real job openings and future careers in these fields,” he said.
Oy, there are so many false implications in this paragraph I don’t know where to start. First of all it isn’t at all clear that increased federal funding doesn’t lead to more graduate student positions and postdoctoral positions and more faculty lines as the result of favorable funding lines. Anyone who has seen the growth of NIH funded research over the last many years (and the subsequent tightening) would probably say that it has led to creation (and subsequent tightening) of all three positions, graduate student, postdoc, and faculty. Okay, so we can debate the ratios, but it doesn’t seem at all possible to argue that all the increased funding leads to no faculty jobs (this also disregards people like me, who are research professors, who certainly benefit from increased funding, quite directly.)
The second problem with the above statements are that, while I agree that the pipeline for positions in academia is vastly oversupplying the small demand, this does not imply that the demand for the students with these degrees isn’t high. The only way you could make such a statement is if you believed that the goal of a degree was only to supply people who work in a field which directly uses that degree. But the benefits of a science and engineering education– strong problem solving skills, strong math skills, the ability to assimilate and apply complex knowledge to complex problems, etc–isn’t something that any country can have an oversupply of, as far as I can tell. The idea that your degree will force you into the job you will have for the rest of your life, just isn’t a reality for vast numbers of people who work in the “real world.” Further, to say that you’d be better off not getting a science of engineering degree but instead just going to work right out of high school or majoring in say, English, in college, well the statistics pretty much speak for themselves. Of course there are exceptions, but if you’re going to argue policy, the exceptions aren’t the issue.
A further problem with the above argument is that one can quite easily argue that an oversupply of science and engineers is actually a necessary component of scientific and technological progress. This is because, unlike, say, accountants, to pick on one field at random, vast scientific and technological probably requires a huge number of people who are actually failing or struggling. Why should society fund a field which is full of failings and unsuccessful ventures? Because the multiplicative effect of the discoveries made in science and the cutting edge products developed by engineers certainly pay for all of these failings hand over fist. If we eliminated the vast cauldron of scientists and engineers, would the productivity gains and fundamental improvement in quality of life we see around us be picked up by the remaining people? I certainly don’t find this very realistic.
The above is not to say that I don’t think there is a disconnect between supply and demand for academic positions in science and engineering. But to equate the academia problem with the role of science and engineering in broader society, seems to me to be quite off base. The problem there is not necessarily the oversupply, but the narrow minded view of those producing scientists and engineers in academia that only a job in the specific field of training is a successful degree.