There’s an article in yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed about the supply of scientists and engineers, arguing that there is not, in fact, a shortage:

Michael S. Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, looked at what he called five “mysteries” of the STEM work force issue. For example, why do employers claim a shortage of qualified STEM graduates while prospects for Ph.D.s remain “poor”? Why do retention and completion rates for STEM fields remain low compared with students’ aspirations? Why is there a “serious” funding crisis at the National Institutes of Health after its budget doubled from 1998 to 2003?

Looking at whether there is a shortage of qualified STEM workers, Teitelbaum argued that such claims reappear roughly every 10 years. In the late 1980s, he said, speculations of looming shortfalls were “wildly wrong,” while successful lobbying in the late 1990s to triple the number of H-1B visas to fulfill a supposed shortage coincided with the IT bust — and a resulting collapse in demand for workers — in 2001.

I suspect that a lot of these questions arise from terminological issues, but the article is a little vague, and doesn’t provide a link to an original source with more detail. Janet discussed this a little yesterday, but I’m not sure how much can be said about it without more information than is provided in the story.

This does, however, provide an excellent hook for talking about another of the excellent talks at the Science in the 21st Century meeting, by David Kaiser of MIT on historical booms and busts in physics after WWII (video, microblogging). The problem described in the article would undoubtedly sound familiar to Kaiser.

He described a boom-and-bust pattern stretching over the last sixty years, in which physicists took dramatic steps to inflate their own numbers in response to a series of crises– Sputnik and the Reagan-era military buildup, chiefly– leading to booms in the number of physics degrees awarded, followed by huge busts when the market collapsed in the early 1970’s and mid 1990’s. The sorts of tactics described in the IHE article fit in very well with what Kaiser described– in the wake of Sputnik, physicists made a very conscious decision to drum up talk of shortages, using wildly inflated statistics regarding the number of scientists and engineers in the USSR. The exact same thing is going on today, with China (and to a lesser degree India) filling in for the now-vanished Evil Empire.

In an interesting wrinkle, Kaiser also identified some effects on pedagogy from this strategy. In the WWII era, the teaching of quantum mechanics included a great deal of discussion of foundational and philosophical issues, but during the post-Sputnik boom, particularly in the US, consideration of foundational issues almost completely vanished from the curriculum, in favor of more problem-solving. When the crash came in the 1970’s, philosophy made a comeback. He argues that this may have affected the history of some problems, setting things like Bell inequality tests back years because students weren’t taught the necessary background.

I’m not convinced that this is the entire story. I think there are technological issues involved as well– the real explosion in quantum foundations work doesn’t come until parametric downconversion sources made it relatively easy to make entangled photon pairs, and quantum computing doesn’t take off until Shor’s algorithm and the Cirac-Zoller proposal for a trapped-ion quantum computer. I’m also not sure that the shift in the 70’s wasn’t part of a larger trend toward more philosophical education generally. He’s really done his homework on these questions, though, and I don’t have anything other than folk history to base my impression on.

The question of the supply or oversupply of scientists also dovetails with part of Eric Weinstein’s talk (video, microblogging). Weinstein is a hedge fund manager, and covered a good deal of ground in his talk, but his main angle, as you would expect, was to look at the state of science through the lens of economics. In his view, scientists have enabled the creation of a system in which we are grossly underpaid, relative to what we could be getting from a mor market-oriented approach. He cited some of the same talk of shortages, but in his view, this ought to be cause for scientists to demand more money, not more scientists.

He also had a few comments about the way science handles crackpot ideas, saying thatgroups like the people running the arxiv shouldn’t think of the crazy people who send in Theories of Everything as a nuisance, but a potential funding source. He argued that there ought to be a way to get these people to put up money on their theories, and for smarter physicists to make money by shorting crazy theories.

I don’t think he convinced Paul Ginsparg (who gave a really interesting talk about the arxiv (video, microblogging)), and the idea is probably a harder sell this week than it was last week. I have to admit it has a certain poetic-justice charm, but it probably overestimates the amount of money that crazy people have access to.

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Al
    September 18, 2008

    A “shortage” is Personnel (Human Resources, Human Factors Engineering) using salary to attract candidates. “Adequate supply” is a candidate accepting a lower salary than his competitors. Either way, the only route to a decent raise is to change jobs. Remaining technical is a sure route to permanent layoff in your early fifties.

    A manager is rewarded for minimizing parasitic expenses. All technical people are qualified and there is no reason to socialize with them. Only their (unjustified) cost is a consideration. Hell, who knows what they do? They leave no spreadsheet trail, they generate no revenue. Corporate value is sourced by Marketing and Sales enabled by management.

  2. #2 Kim
    September 18, 2008

    Speaking of crackpot funding, does Union have a Gravity Research Foundation monument? Middlebury had one – apparently a wealthy crackpot gave Middlebury money for a monument and support of research into antigravity (with the goal of keeping airplanes from falling out of the sky). As far as I know, the physicists were mildly embarrassed by the whole thing. (I took students to the monument on my tour of rocks on campus for my intro class.)

  3. #3 John Novak
    September 18, 2008

    The sorts of tactics described in the IHE article fit in very well with what Kaiser described– in the wake of Sputnik, physicists made a very conscious decision to drum up talk of shortages, using wildly inflated statistics regarding the number of scientists and engineers in the USSR. The exact same thing is going on today, with China (and to a lesser degree India) filling in for the now-vanished Evil Empire.

    This absolutely happens today, with computer science and engineering majors. I’d add the following details, though:

    1) I don’t think it’s engineering as a discipline making these claims, I think it is a number engineering departments at various universities.

    2) There’s a perverse sort of arms race going on, whereby China (today) publishes wildly inflated numbers of engineering graduates, and American universities (mostly) willfully believe this because it can help them get better funding. (A few universities objects, a few years back, and pointed out that China’s definition of a trained engineer was about the equivalent of a strong two-year grad, here.)

    3) That said, there does seem to be a shortfall in the making of electrical engineers (specifically) and computer scientists, but it’s driven primarily by parents afraid that EE and CS jobs are all going to be shipped to India, but ME jobs are immune to that.

    That, according to my old department chair (we keep in touch; I recruit a lot.) I didn’t believe him until I spoke to some recent ME grads here at work and they told me they had really wanted to be CS majors, but their parents wouldn’t pay for it.

    It’s a cyclical thing.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    September 18, 2008

    2) There’s a perverse sort of arms race going on, whereby China (today) publishes wildly inflated numbers of engineering graduates, and American universities (mostly) willfully believe this because it can help them get better funding. (A few universities objects, a few years back, and pointed out that China’s definition of a trained engineer was about the equivalent of a strong two-year grad, here.)

    The really funny thing is, Kaiser showed examples of exactly the same thing going on back in the 50’s with the USSR. The same difference in definition of “engineer” leading to the same huge disparity in graduates, being hyped to the government in almost identical language.

    It’s a little bit sad, really.

  5. #5 Tom
    September 19, 2008

    One of the selling points of physics I recall was the argument that there were a lot of physicists who had earned their degrees on the GI bill after WWII, and they were going to be retiring in the mid-80s/early 90s, and so there would be a hiring boom. Go into physics! Your timing is perfect! It never panned out. The timing coincided with departments deciding to downsize, so positions were eliminated and hiring stayed more or less the same.

    And I was too early for the brief telecom boom where it seems that anyone who knew what a lens and laser were could get a pretty decent job. (Not complaining about where my career path took me, though)

  6. #6 John Novak
    September 19, 2008

    The really funny thing is, Kaiser showed examples of exactly the same thing going on back in the 50’s with the USSR.

    I didn’t know it until I read your article, but, yeah. That’s why I put the parenthetical after China. I’ve been skeptical of the broad-based, generation-long predictions of shortages for somewhere between five and ten years, now, because the groups primarily complaining about it are the groups that have the biggest interest in seeing more tuition money.

    The ones I really find laughable are the computer science departments screaming about the death of western civilization if their government funding goes down. Um, guys, you went from being obscure adjuncts to the math and philosophy departments in the 50s to a mainstay of modern education– if you don’t have a CS department, you’re barely a school. And the entire industrial base depends on you. You don’t need the same degree of federal funding any more. It’s time to move on to the next transformative technology– you guys go talk to industry, now.

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    September 19, 2008

    Kaiser [said that] in the WWII era, the teaching of quantum mechanics included a great deal of discussion of foundational and philosophical issues, but during the post-Sputnik boom, particularly in the US, consideration of foundational issues almost completely vanished from the curriculum, in favor of more problem-solving.

    When I taught “History of Scientific Revolution” from Kuhn, an important point is that “foundational and philosophical issues” are debated intensely ONLY during times of crisis, not in the course of “normal science.”

    I agree with the chronology, but not the spin. I am a product of the rivers of federal $$$ pouring into STEM education after Sputnik. But it is not so simple to identify when there is what kind of crisis in what field.

    Right now, I see “foundational and philosophical issues” hotly debated in Mathematics — i.e. Category Theory or Set Theory? What is a proof, if nobody can read a 100,000-page computer printout?

    I see “foundational and philosophical issues” hotly debated in Cosmology — universe expanding, okay. Big bang? Good first order fit to data, bad 2nd order fit. Dark matter? Well, sort of, kind of, maybe. Dark Energy? What the…?

    I see “foundational and philosophical issues” hotly debated in Computational Biology.

    Anyone else agree or disagree or have a crisis to add?

  8. #8 Dan Robb
    September 19, 2008

    Thanks for the interesting post/comments! I hadn’t really thought much about whether the call for more STEM majors in the U.S. is justified.

    I guess my take after reading all this is that there are probably not enough U.S.-educated (meaning K-12 and college) STEM majors to meet the demands of US industry, but that there’s a supply of foreign-educated STEM workers who are willing to do the work for less (either in the US or abroad). Thus the lowered number of US-educated STEM majors doesn’t translate into a higher demand or higher salary (for either the US-educated or the foreigners).

    The lower number of US-educated STEM majors can be seen as a concern from the point of view of US competitiveness, which some academic departments have used to gain more research funding. In the process, they have produced more PhD’s (both American and foreign), further saturating the job market.

    If China and India are training more STEM people (and they are I think, even if the numbers are inflated), it seems very unlikely that the US will run into a shortage of STEM workers anytime soon. In fact, the problem if anything has been “brain drain” from countries like China and India, as STEM people come to the US and assimilate.

    So maybe what we need to think more clearly about is whether we want/need to have a larger percentage of our STEM workforce be US-educated (again, I mean by this having goner through K-12 and university in the US). It seems that having all of our engineers come from China/India would be unwise, since China/India could stop the supply if relations were strained. On the other hand, cutting off all opportunities to talented foreigners who want to live in the US would be too protectionist and wouldn’t help our economy or competitiveness. Where’s the right balance?

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    September 19, 2008

    There was a real shortage of physicists, but the funding mechanisms and incentives (including NSF money) created an exponential growth of PhDs that soon overshot the very real demand. I write about it at length starting here …

    http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/07/physics-jobs-part-1.html

    … and continuing in later articles about demand and important things I have learned about jobs in academia over my career. When 90% of new PhD grads went into academic jobs, there was certainly no shortage of jobs during the post-war growth period. NIH simply repeated the process in a different field. Both were somewhat artificial “bubbles” in today’s financial lingo.

    Prospects for a new PhD are not “poor” in physics and certainly not in engineering. They are only “poor” if you think that every PhD (rather than 1 of 3) should end up with a job somewhere in academia or, worse, if you think that every one of them (rather than 1 in 10) should get a job at a major research university. That thinking was only valid in the 1960s, but remains common among faculty who know little else.

    Employers complain about the supply of high quality PhD scientists at a low price, and always will, and the attractiveness of the US to immigrants affects the market as well. Yet I know plenty of people who got a PhD at the bottom of the market and had good careers outside academia. It was not their dream, but they did OK.

    However, I have nothing but contempt for a demographer who wonders why the completion and retention rates are low. Visit a calculus or physics classroom (or the “college algebra” class the wannabe engineer is in because of a pathetic excuse for a high school education) and learn something. Those majors are more demanding, on average, than the ones that lead to being a demographer! Aspirations will not improve your math skills, especially if you aspire to an engineering career because you think it is an easy way to earn a high salary rather than a lot of hard work that you happen to enjoy. Only hard work and a really supportive environment (which takes money and special people) will improve those skills.

    Here is a sample study for Teitelbaum:
    Get together a bunch of wannabe engineers and show them a presentation on the pay levels for different kinds of engineers, with a pre- and post- survey on their interests. Notice how many suddenly think Chemical Engineering would be GREAT because it pays so much more than the other areas. Then show those kids what they need to do to get through 4 semesters of calculus and differential equations, 2 semesters of physics, and 4 semesters of chemistry (including 2 of organic chem), which includes 6 lab courses … all before they start their junior-year chemical engineering classes. The results of a final survey might cure his puzzlement about retention.

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