Saturday, May 08, 2004

Where have all the scientists gone?

The National Science Board (part of the US National Science Foundation) has observed "a troubling decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers, whereas the number of jobs requiring science and engineering (S&E) training continues to grow." I have my doubts about this claim, since finding the direct evidence on the Board's site has proven to be difficult. Let's take it at face value for now, though; what really interests me are the international trends that lead to this being a problem.

America has always depended on foreign scientists and engineers, from the days of the railroad (Brits), through the Manhattan project and ICBMs (Germans and Hungarians), to the burgeoning of the software business (South Asians). For the last hundred years, America was the place to come as a scientist. Not only did you find world-class colleagues, but the quality of life was unequalled.

The emergence of India and China as world-class knowledge economies means that natives from those countries can now stay at home and still get the benefits of an intellectual life. And more: they will be able to stay close to their aging parents, and be assured that their children get a relatively sober and culturally sound upbringing, which they may doubt they'll get in the US.

This trend will gain momentum rapidly, since it is a social network effect; Metcalfe's Law applies. The more world-class scientists and engineers remain at home, the more attractive it will be for their peers to do so - in a non-linear way.

Craig Mundie has observed that, everything else being equal, brain power is distributed with population. If stable economic and social development continues in India and China, they will surpass the United States and Europe in the number - and hence aggregate quality - of scientists and engineers. The challenge for the old knowledge economies will be to find a way to make a distinctive contribution that will maintain the differentially high income that they've become accustomed to.

Christopher Ireland believes that they'll become theme parks. America is already the world's entertainer, judging by Hollywood's influence. Providing emotional satisfaction is a difficult and rewarding business - and one where humanists and artists are as important as scientists and engineers. However, entertainment is much more culturally diverse than science. Euro-Disney and US-Disney may become attractive places for a holiday (visiting Italy is apparently Americans' favorite dream holiday), but I wonder if it'll be a sustainable business.

Perhaps I'm wrong about the Okies' (Old Knowledge Economies - OKEs) need to maintain a differentially high income. Incomes in the new economies will rise, but as long as it doesn't follow that it'll fall in the old ones, the Okies will be OK. In this scenario, though, one has to start wondering about sustainable energy use. As environmental analysts have pointed out for decades, it will be difficult for the planet to cope with everybody burning as much fossil fuel per capita as the Americans do.

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