Therapeutic Dose: Want More Scientists? Show Them the Money

March 3, 2009
"Doing more with less" has made boiling frogs out of us all, as we accept limitations on time and income. Is this any way to attract young people to science and engineering?

While I do not consider myself a serious student of history, I did pay attention in some of my “non-science” classes back in school. The Maginot Line in France came to mind while I was listening to the recent debates on how to get the US economy going and compete with the world. The Line was built on the paradigm of World War I: trench warfare and protracted land encounters. Then the air power of Germany came along and the German army simply went over and around the Line. One thing that was mentioned in the economic debates, over and over, was how U.S. science and math education lags behind the rest of the world except perhaps for the Antarctic penguins.

Futurists want more science and math teachers and want them to teach ever more scientists and mathematicians. (Brings to mind Mickey Mouse, brooms, and buckets in Fantasia; how did that work out?) There are a number of 800-pound gorillas in the room that no one properly addresses. First, there are gaping wage discrepancies at play. The average teacher starts at $30K; the average industrial chemist at $50K; and the average lawyer at $100K. When Wall Street existed, an MBA degree could guarantee a starting salary of perhaps $150K. Doctors, after med school is paid off, do not drive Hyundais.

The incentive for bright young people is (was) to be a basketball player, sports agent, or stock broker rather than a teacher or chemist. Even towns that want to pay a premium for science and math teachers have run into the teachers union (I can give you an earful here). In one case I remember, a gym teacher was covering high school math classes because he had seniority over the math teacher who was laid off. One solution in the past has been to hire out-of-work Ph.D.’s on high school teachers’ salaries. That only works until times get better and the Ph.D.’s return to industry.

So, now we have massive layoffs in the Pharma industry (independent of the economic crisis—20,000 people from the Wy-Pfi merger alone I understand. Multiply this number by all the other pharma and chemical companies experiencing slow-downs and there are scores (tens of thousands) of well-educated scientists lining up for unemployment benefits . . . and the solution is to educate more scientists? Maybe Saudi Arabia should import oil, too.

OK, sounds bad, but there’s more. In this magazine last month, and in a recent issue of Forbes, it has been pointed out that as employees are being laid off, the remaining workers are being required to “pick up the slack.” As a consequence, American workers are now the most productive in the world. That should be considered good news, but as the recession begins to wind down, this productivity may hurt the workers out of work: As companies begin to gear up and produce more widgets (in our case tablets, capsules, ampoules, and such), they find that existing workers are capable of even more work. Management will take advantage of these productivity gains to maintain a leaner workforce. Thus, our working longer hours, at home, during weekends, and during lunch may in the long run be hurting us all.

If pharmaceutical executives suddenly enacted a 10-20% increase in workload, there would be angry mobs with pitchforks and torches storming their offices (figuratively, that is; true geeks would probably refuse to wear their pocket protectors in protest). However, as with cooking frogs¹, slow and steady wins the race (I love mixing metaphors). Over the recent past, the American workers’ workload increase has also been slow and steady; we didn’t notice we were being cooked (in a manner of speaking).

We’re attacking one part of a problem without viewing the whole problem. Take the science and math gap. Trying to make more scientists and hoping there will be work for them is, perhaps, a great example of supply-side economics, but maybe that isn’t what’s needed here. What we need is marketing.

In the late 1950s, when the US started launching rockets, the kids entered engineering schools in droves. Science was sexy, period. Enough of today’s trench warfare attitude: Make it desirable to go into science and math and they will leap. As with computers in the 1980s and 90s, no one forced kids to take computer science; they wanted to. Want more kids in science and math? Make it worth their while: Show them the money!

¹If a frog is placed into boiling water, it will jump out; if it is placed in cool water and slowly heated to boiling, it will be cooked.

About the Author

Emil W. Ciurczak | Contributing Editor