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.