Monday, June 12, 2006

The dreaded decline in American science

I’m tired of the moaning about the supposed decline of American science and technology. There are frequent forecasts of doom, along with calls (by professors) for increased funding of education, and (by business people) for increased R&D subsidies.

It doesn’t necessarily follow:

It’s not at all proven that the US lags in science and technology; see e.g. data cited by Fareed Zakaria on page 2 of his MSNBC column “How Long Will America Lead the World?” According to him, the U.S. is currently ranked the second most competitive economy in the world (by the World Economic Forum), and is first in technology and innovation, first in technological readiness, first in company spending for research and technology and first in the quality of its research institutions.

Even if it’s true that the US lags, it’s not proven that science/tech is the key factor in innovation. Innovation is creating a new product that makes a difference. Science and technology is necessary, but not sufficient; I’m not even convinced it’s the key factor. iPod is a great market innovation, but Apple wasn’t the inventor of the MP3 player or on-line music stores. Rather, the key was to design a compelling whole.

Even if technology were the key factor in innovation, it’s not clear that science/tech is the US’s key competitive advantage going forward. Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage in trade suggests that countries should focus on the activity where they’re “most better” at. If the US is better at business model innovation than engineering, then it should focus on business, even if its engineering is the best in the world.

I’m reminded of the old story about the California gold rush: the diggers went home poor, but Levi Strauss made a fortune selling jeans. I suspect that having a science-educated workforce is the gold fever of the knowledge economy boom.

Rising countries are strong in science and technology; but it doesn’t follow that science and technology is the source of their competitiveness. It is just as possible, and more likely, that it’s the “technology” of market capitalism, selectively applied.

The talents required to succeed in this economy may well be soft, human skills, like those advocated by Dan Pink in his book “A Whole New Mind”. I have my doubts about it – not least because Dan Pink argues that the future belongs to people like Dan Pink – but it give a provocative counter-point to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) advocates. Pink’s six essential aptitudes for the coming century are design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning; very little along those lines is taught in engineering school.

I hear echoes of the Manhattan Project and its successors in the battle cries of the technocrats. The supposed success of science in winning the second world war led to Robert McNamara & Co running the Vietnam war by the numbers, with such great success. Not to mention Donald Rumsfeld’s Technology Über Alles strategy for winning the war in Iraq….

Of course we need people who can excel in knowledge-intensive jobs – but that’s not the same as STEM jobs.

And of course we need a good supply of engineers. However, the problem (if any) is one of demand, not supply. If engineers were indeed so valuable to companies, then employers would increase salaries until all positions were filled to their satisfaction. A “Help Wanted” sign in a diner’s window doesn’t mean that there’s a shortage of short order cooks; it mostly means that the owner of the diner isn’t willing to pay a decent wage.

I’ll concede that there is a problem with US education. (Though… when hasn’t there been? And which country doesn’t agonize over education?) The NAS panel recommended that more science teachers be recruited by paying sign-on bonuses (PDF exec summary). However, this is a palliative at best. The core problem is that teachers aren’t paid enough (blame the Right), and that the teachers’ unions have a stranglehold on workplace rules (blame the Left). There is a gap in teachers’ salaries, and a lack of accountability.

The American Federation of Teachers salary survey reports that the average job offer in 2004 to college graduates who were not education majors was $40,472; that’s $8,768 more than a starting teacher’s salary. A sign-on bonus will help, but only if salaries for mid-career teachers also increase. At this point, there’s no financial incentive for good scientists and engineers to stay in teaching.

Here’s one reason why school science scores are better in emerging countries: in those places, teaching is still a relatively well-paying job. The US problem of affluence will catch up with them in time. For example, India is struggling to find university lecturers in computer science, since they can earn so much more in the commercial sector. American science education will only improve if the society decides that teachers are as important as design engineers, and pays them accordingly; sadly, that’s not on the cards.

1 comment:

Suze Woolf said...

You lay out a convincing argument that it's the application of business to science and technology that is unique in the US rather than either on its own. I sense the general concern to be less that the US is lagging now, but that the pipeline is not as full as it was.

Arguably creating a post 9/11 climate hostile to foreign STEM researchers and business graduate students is the more damaging change, since in the past the US had a very large share of global talent as well as its own half-full/half-empty pipeline.