After years of warnings about low graduation rates in STEM disciplines from tech companies and DARPA, the call for more enrollments in scientific and engineering programs, and better, more science-centered primary schooling is being echoed across the media. It seems that the United States has been lagging behind and a new influx of chemists, biologists, physicists, computer scientists, and engineers is urgently needed to drive the economy and keep the nation from falling farther into the economic doldrums. To aid in that goal, the Bad Astronomer is writing inspirational paeans to experimental learning, and everyone is being urged to learn how to write code for the sake of our future. What’s so bad about outreach meant to inspire kids to put on lab coats or tinker with robots so when they grow up, they can quite literally build and grow our future? Ordinarily, I would say "not a damn thing" because the more people study how to apply the scientific method, the more we can inject rational debates into our currently badly suffering and appallingly hysterical civil discourse. But if we encourage them to peruse a scientific career without any changes to the system, things may end badly.
Here’s the dilemma. We value scientific education and expertise but we don’t seem to want to pay for it. When you go through the occupational reports and projections by the BLS, you can optimistically gather somewhere around a million scientific jobs if you don’t restrict yourself to only the occupations requiring a PhD. How could that be? What about all the colleges and large companies with R&D departments? Well, colleges don’t need hundreds of physics professors per department, they only need a small handful. Big companies also need a handful of researchers at best and many can’t afford them or aren’t willing to boost their R&D budgets since a department which doesn’t consistently produce a reliable stream of profits by its very definition looks less like an asset than a necessary evil on a quarterly report and elicit grumbles from impatient investors. A handful in this college and a handful in that lab and a handful in a few companies only makes a few handfuls. So with a lot of scientific jobs being few and far between, it’s insanely difficult to land one and when you do, you have to fight to keep it or you’ll be quickly pushed out because without constant breakthroughs or popular papers, a department chair or executive will want to give another of the thousand applicants for your job a shot.
On top of that, while compensation for PhDs in STEM fields reaches between $70,000 and $110,000 per year depending on their profession and experience, most post-docs have to make do with $35,000 a year at most and assistant jobs are not exactly the best paying scientific ventures. In fact, the only STEM fields that’ll reward graduates are computer science and engineering, but only because there are many companies in need of an engineer or a programmer on a constant basis and they’re highly unlikely to do any sort of R&D while they are employed. As I mentioned before, the market for professional IT workers is approaching 1.5 million jobs and the market for computer scientists is approaching 35,000 in the same time frames. So we’ll inspire all those young, eager, new STEM graduates into what exactly? Tiny job markets, 1 in 1,000 odds of being hired, and a career unlikely to last past their late 40s or early 50s? Who would want to subject themselves to it? Yes, there are a lot of people who just want to do what they love and aren’t worried about becoming millionaires. I really, really do get that. Unfortunately, love doesn’t pay the bills and we’re not talking about not being able to go on a luxury tour of Europe in a hypersonic train, or whatever it is that’s all the rage among millionaires these days. I was talking about paying the rent and paying down those often downright predatory college loans.
Just like we’re finally discussing that a college degree is no guarantee of financial stability despite being very aggressively pitched as such for more than two decades, and that far too many undergraduates have little in terms of income and too much in terms of debt while there are PhDs subsisting on food stamps, we really need to get realistic about the effects of a STEM boom based on little more than supportive rhetoric. Is minting more scientists a noble pursuit? Absolutely. But to insist on educating them through test-based droning, then send them through as many as eight years of grad school to throw them into a market with endless demand for cheap and highly educated assistants but room for only a small handful of researchers and experts, would be a huge disservice to the kids we’re now trying to inspire to peruse STEM fields. We have to change how we educate kids and refuse to allow testing as a crutch for politicians to pretend they’re actually doing something to improve schools. We have to fund more scientific pursuits and treat grants and productive research not as an expense but an asset. We have to create more jobs for PhDs and provide incentives to invest in research, whether it’s with tax breaks or credits, or by offering government competitions for contracts the way NASA has been doing with its COTS program. Yes, we need more STEM grads. But we need to treat them well too.