3 Reasons We Can Stop Spending $5 Billion to Recruit Scientists

This article was originally published here

Sometimes Science 2.0 has to swim against the stream. The stream, in this case, has been the long-standing irrational belief that America ‘needs’ more scientists.

There are two reasons I have always had for going against the grain of science media mantra about recruiting more and more students into science:  The first reason is that creativity in science is one instance where quantity does not matter.  While I am a big believer in the power of crowdsourcing for many things, and have endorsed it in too many instances to count, science does not really work that way.  That business about monkeys reproducing the works of Shakespeare is statistical nonsense. Diminishing returns kick in rather quickly. China and India both have good average scores in math and science and lots of people.  Yet America rules the high end of science.

The second reason is that in order to ‘make’ more scientists, they would have to come from somewhere that requires the same rigor.  Science is hard.  STEM outreach campaigns, no matter how many billions of dollars the National Science Foundation spends, are not going to make science easier, so we cannot turn secretaries into scientists, we instead would have to turn people inclined to be doctors into scientists.  That’s not really a victory.   What I have argued instead is we need to knock it off with the 1990s-era protectionism scheme that invented the boogeyman of the foreign worker who was willing to work for peanuts in the USA and led to restricting work visas. We have made student visas easy to get for people from other countries and then won’t let those people get jobs afterward, so they are forced to go back home and compete with us.  We don’t need to spend billions turning more Americans into scientists, we simply need to allow more scientists who want to be in America to become Americans. Look at all the money I just saved that can be used for actual science research by the government group with ‘Science’ in its middle name?

Now add a third reason: We have a government-created fetish with higher education, brought on by the same statistical nonsense thinking as monkeys and the Internet.  Politicians in the early 1990s saw that a college degree led, on average, to higher incomes, on average, and declared all incomes would go up if everyone got a college degree.  Applause ensued, mostly from colleges, and skeptics of the notion were derided for not caring about children and education. Students now realize that by making everyone exceptional, no one is, and they have instead gotten a lot of debt because colleges are a business, just like any other business, and when the pool of money became unlimited, so did the tuition.  All those new buildings, new campuses and new employees are now getting a dose of the same fiscal reality non-government employees have had to face but aside from political theater like canceling popular classes or charging more tuition for majors that can actually get a job, the system is here to stay.

Given those three things that we know to be true, why do we read once a month that America needs more scientists? There are 5,000 Ph.D.s in America working as janitorsAnother 8,000 Ph.D.s are working as waitresses and waiters. 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees and double that work as secretaries or in customer service, the same jobs they would have had 25 years ago if they never got college degrees.

Most of those 13,000 Ph.D.s I just noted are not science.  Scientists can easily get a job. But they can’t necessarily get a job they want.  Contrary to ridiculous claims about ‘self-selection’ that sociologists try to insist is the reason there is shockingly little political diversity and tolerance in academia, a faculty or tenure job in academia pays well and is a nice gig.  Many Ph.D.s in science want to work in academia, they want their own lab, they want to do research and make a difference. However, most Ph.D.s are not getting that job.

American academic science is controlled by the government and the government has finite capacity to fund projects.  If you are in the top 10 percent of proposals, you will get funded – but people are living longer and healthier than ever, so the pool of competitors now includes researchers that are 75 years old and know the system well so being the top proposal is work (some recommendations on learning the system and creating better proposals is here). Everyone without a funded R01 grant has to scramble to get repeat jobs as post-doctoral fellows working for peanuts.  Education unions have created another new boogeyman to blame for the slave wages that being a post-doc pays – liberal academics and universities are exploiting workers, so they insist post-docs need to unionize.

It’s a silly idea to contend that unions will be able to change the free market and ‘create’ more funding just by convincing a lot of young researchers to go on strike.  We have contributors here making it on post-doc money with families and thinking they should get be willing to get evicted so unions can gain more power is silly. The reality is that when there is an oversupply of something, the price will come down.  The quality, intriguingly, stays about the same, as any Wal-Mart shopper knows. The best young Ph.D.s will still get the jobs, because they want to be in academia and will earn it, but the ones who just got by on endurance will still drive the wages downward. 

Brian Vastag at The Washington Post frames oversupply as ‘scarcity of jobs‘. It’s the same people but an interesting difference in verbage – I may decide I want to be a gym teacher tomorrow but if I don’t get a job I can’t claim it is due to ‘scarcity’, it is due to 5 million other people having the same idea. While getting a Ph.D. can be done with enough time spent, getting a top job is not going to be easy because more Ph.D.s does not mean more faculty positions.  Vastag notes some jobs are gone in the private sector also and contends that the loss of private sector science jobs, like at drug companies, is the fault of everything except the obvious over-regulation by the government and rampant litigation of drug companies: “decade of slash-and-burn mergers, stagnating profit, exporting of jobs to India, China and Europe, and declining investment in research and development have dramatically shrunk the U.S. drug industry.”

Just about every industry in America has shrunk, except the kind getting government subsidies.  The American economy is a demilitarized zone and apparently we like it that way, since few people seem interested in changing.  It is truly mapping data to a cultural topology to take the anomaly of the last three years and say it is business being greedy and not caring about America.

But you see how he evoked some American nationalism and demonized mean old Asians. The ‘outsourcing’ boogeyman of the 1990s once again.  Like our crappy economy, we created the outsourcing problem – manufacturing left the US because we insisted those were jobs no American would do and we hyper-regulated companies. If you look at where the fewest manufacturing jobs are, they are in states where the government hates business. Steve Jobs had to be laughing inside when President Obama asked him about why iPads were not made in America.  Apple, the company that used to make everything in America, no longer made anything here except some software. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he replied.

If corporate outsourcing is the culprit then academia, who overwhelmingly buying Apple products, are cutting their own throats. “We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries,” a current Apple executive told  Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher in that NYT piece. “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.”

How conservative.  If you talk to anyone in business, including Apple in that article, it isn’t because Americans are too expensive.  It’s because the American government is too expensive.  

“Companies once felt an obligation to support American workers, even when it wasn’t the best financial choice,” said Betsey Stevenson, the chief economist at the Labor Department until last September. 

Not now. American regulations and culture have treated business like the enemy.  Companies are told that they are greedy and irresponsible if they make any money at all.  

Like Apple, research companies do not have an obligation to solve America’s problems, especially when they have been self-created.  The idea that research is being exported to China and India is silly. Drug companies, for example, are instead hammered with regulations from inception so any company that can survive to a stage III clinical trial is snapped up by a big conglomerate – but getting there is hard because of regulatory obstacles. Venture capitalists have left biotech in droves, not because private sector R&D was bad, but because the climate for making money was terrible due to increased regulations.

Obviously, scientists are not to blame for all of that. They don’t want to think about politics but with over 50% of research controlled by the government, they are part of government and therefore politics.  To get the best science done means making sure the limited amount of money available is well-spent.  Some improvements have been made, obvious non-science will perhaps no longer be funded with money set aside for scientists, but continuing to try and recruit competitors does not make a lot of sense so the science community should stop asking for ‘more’ and start highlighting how well American research does with what it has.

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