uncle sam wants you… to be a supernerd

The military is running out of nerds and worries it doesn't have enough to develop and control its future high tech weapons. But the government isn't about to incentivize STEM students with anything other than PR...
brain with glasses

Yes, that’s not a joke. The mad scientist arm of the military complex and the parent organization of the agency that put humans on another world, DARPA, says that one of the greatest resources they currently lack is a big enough pool of science and computing grads and grad students.

Those robot armies, synthetic life forms, new technologies for the battlefield and the civilian world, and suspended animation serums aren’t just going to make themselves. The military needs a steady stream of experts in medical science, chemistry, computing and AI, engineering, and physics to keep its research and development programs going at full steam. But with a major drop in students enrolled in scientific and engineering programs, DARPA’s chiefs are worried about the projected lack of experts and grad students to carry on ongoing and potential bleeding edge experiments.

Why are science and computing graduations down 43% over the last decade? Maybe it’s the blatant teaching of anti-scientific notions in classes, or a culture outright hostile to any kind of genuine expertise or skill, or the steady dismantling of primary education standards in states that influence textbook makers, or a recent elevation of cranks and quacks to an equal footing with actual scientists, or a combination of all these very disturbing factors, but the fact of the matter is that science and engineering in the U.S. is starting to falter.

We can argue that the low pay and exceedingly treacherous politics of academe can discourage people to pursue a scientific path, and push them towards opting for the glitz of Wall Street or an MBA instead. And we should be concerned about how we treat future scientists and what opportunities we provide for them. Today, the U.S. is cutting funding for numerous grants. Even DARPA felt the sting of politicians’ utter indifference to science and engineering, losing nearly half of its college research budget from 2001 to 2008. The side effect of all the research and scientific grant cutting is less work for potential scientists and ultimately, fewer scientists.

Instead of slowly but surely taking the scientific infrastructure of the U.S. apart, politicians should be ramping it up, providing more and more research grants, fellowships, scholarships and opportunities. Keeping students in schools where they can work on new technology and carry out scientific studies that can be licensed by big and mid-size businesses isn’t a bad thing. A single invention generates more jobs than a tax credit and just a few million dollars in grant funding can make it all possible.

Seeing that the competition for grants isn’t simply insane and the grants themselves are limited to the safest and mundane projects, potential scientists would know that there’s a real future in their fields. But while we can point to a shaky school system and institutional shortfalls for scientists, it’s very hard to pin down why computer science has also been neglected. Salaries for seasoned programmers and computer scientists can flirt with six digits and there is always a steady demand for someone who understands how to write code and produce software packages.

Funny enough, the Popular Science write-up of DARPA’s woes might give an interesting clue as to why many scientific, engineering and computer fields are shunned in favor of social science and humanities degrees in a rather condescending and unnecessary potshot about the agency’s efforts to encourage students to try their hands at science and programming with scholarships, contests and career days…

Of course, if Dugan really wants to solve the looming nerd shortage, she and the creative minds at DARPA might want to try enticing teenage geeks into science with something they can’t otherwise get: dates.

Ouch! Talk about playing into popular culture’s image of scientists and computing experts as impersonal and borderline anti-social nerds who have virtually no human emotions under their icy exteriors, repelling potential dates with their pathological awkwardness. How about we counter this ridiculous stereotype with the facts? In the last sixty years, DARPA helped give us space travel, the internet and a wide range of technologies we take for granted every day.

Physicists, engineers and computer experts gave us the web, high tech weapons, and a wide range of computers in all shapes in sizes. Chemists invented new medication and materials. The nerds are the minds at the forefront of building the future and if you want to see progress, you owe it to yourself to get more nerds into colleges, defense agencies and corporations instead of undermining them with anti-science rhetoric, promoting pseudoscientific babble, and cutting their funding out of short-sightedness.

# education // education / government spending / scientific research / scientist


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