are today’s science funding recommendations doing more harm than good?

March 9, 2013

mass media advice

Nature recently published a thorough look at Norman Augustine, an engineer who now advises political bigwigs on how to allocate research and development dollars for scientific ventues. A lot of his recommendations are praised as overdue, common sense, and essential. But there’s one nagging criticism that emerges every time. Augustine argues that the United States needs to get more STEM students from around the world because the United States can’t compete with entire armies of new engineers and scientists emerging from China and India. Sounds like good advice as well because science is fundamentally a collaborative process and the more ideas germinate and can be tested, the faster we can advance the task of acquiring and applying the brand new knowledge universities and research labs are supposed to produce. Unfortunately the data that lies under this recommendation appears to be fundamentally flawed…

The first version of the report ended up including at least one major exaggeration: that China graduated nearly ten times more engineers than the United States (600,000 versus 70,000) — a comparison used to argue for increasing the number of scientists and engineers in the United States. But the Chinese data probably included two-year technical degrees whereas the US figure did not. The error “contributed to the alarm quality of the report”, says Michael Teitelbaum, an economist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York… “I don’t know of any serious analyst with an open mind who has concluded there are shortages in the science and technology workforce,” he says. In fact, many US scientists and engineers were struggling to find high-quality jobs in academia and industry, a trend that continues today.

Whoops. True, the "serious analyst with an open mind" part sounds a lot like a fallacy because there are analysts who disagree that there are enough STEM grads in the United States, but the problem of scientists and engineers being unable to find jobs is very real. We churn them out in significant numbers but companies don’t want to hire them because they’re too busy looking for perfect fits into their exact jobs, not transferable skills, and severe budgets cuts in higher ed can leave PhDs on food stamps. Which brings us to the real dilemma in American STEM disciplines today. Students often take on huge debts, study for 6 to 8 years for a shot at a $35,000 a year post-doc by professors who believe that it’s not their duty to prepare them for jobs, then with an immense debt burden and little pay face companies who refuse to hire them because they want someone with three years of very particular experience for an entry level position or prefer to offshore the positions to save money up front despite the often mixed results.

Augustine’s voice joining major tech companies who support massive offshoring and H1-B visas, which are dominated by a small clutch of Indian consulting companies, only makes the problem worse for the STEM grads. Now not only can they not find work, but they’re being told that we’re not graduating enough scientists and engineers and need to import them from abroad. What an incredibly cruel, mixed message! We have the best universities in the world. Only they don’t get enough STEM grads through the system and those they do are apparently unfit for work, while a technical college half a world away apparently churns out a surplus of the STEM grads we want those being produced by the world’s best colleges to be? Now, it is just me or does this make no sense whatsoever? Do the people who advocate this line of debate really research the quality of the data they use? Or do they simply brush it aside and assume that the complains about a lack of properly qualified STEM workers is the honest truth of companies with no ulterior motives?

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  • TheBrett

    I support it more for entrepreneurship reasons than because our high tech companies supposedly need a ton more STEM grads (which is self-serving nonsense, as you pointed out). Even factoring in that they represent a big chunk of our overall STEM graduates, foreign-born STEM grads found a very high percentage of high technology start-ups – 24.3% overall, and 43.9% in Silicon Valley (link).

    But if you want to get both that, plus employing STEM graduates at an overall higher level, then we really need some more aggregate demand in the US economy. Companies can be choosier in recessions, since the downsides of potentially hiring a lemon of an employee loom larger, and the need to fill positions is less. But when aggregate demand and economic growth are high (like with the late 1990s boom), then they’re desperate to fill positions lest they miss out on potential business in a booming economy.