Are We Fighting the Last War?

April 10, 2009
While I do not consider myself a serious student of history, I did pay attention in some of my “non-science” classes, often even my AF-ROTC classes. The Maginot Line in France came to mind while I was listening to the debates on how to get the US economy going and compete with the world. The Line was built on the paradigm of WWI: trench warfare and protracted land encounters. Then the air power of Germany came along and the German army simply went around the Line. One thing that was mentioned in the debates, over and over, was US science and math education and how we lagged behind everyone but the Antarctic penguins. [This is true, but not for the reasons stated.]           
To a person, the futurists want more science and math teachers and want them to teach even more scientists and mathematicians. (Brings to mind Mickey Mouse, brooms, and buckets in Fantasia; how did that work out, I forget?) There are a number of 800 pound gorillas in the room that no one notices or addresses. [All comments are based on pre-meltdown data.] 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 $150K. Doctors, after med school is paid off do not drive Hyundai’s, do they? I would say they are more likely seen in a Mercedes or Audi, no?
            So, economically, the incentive is (was) more to be a basketball player, sports agent, or stock broker than a teacher or chemist. Even towns that wanted to pay a premium for science and math teachers ran into the teachers union (I can give you an earful here); differential pay was against their contract. In one case, the gym teacher was covering the math classes because he had seniority over the math teacher who was laid off. (This was during the 1970s recession.) One solution was to hire out-of-work Ph.D.s for a BS teacher’s salary. That worked well until the recession ended and they all went back to industry.           
So, now we have massive layoffs in the Pharma industry (independent of the economic crisis, even); 20,000 people from the Wy-Pfi merger alone. Multiply this number by all the other Pharma and chemical companies having slow-downs and there are a bunch (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.
Mini-revue: push to educate more scientists, tens of thousands being dumped on the market, salaries nothing to write home about. OK, sounds bad, but there’s more. In a recent issue of Forbes magazine, it was 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 (c’mon, every column has a “but”) it may not be. As the recession begins to wind down, this productivity may hurt the workers out of work.
“How can that be?” You may well ask. As companies begin to gear up and produce more widgets (in our case tablets, capsules, ampoules, and such), they will find the existing workers are capable of even more work. [The PAT initiative is based on a 3-10% efficiency of Pharma production, so higher productivity will make this percentage increase as PAT initiatives come on line.] There may well be a slow start to the re-hiring of workers as sales increase. Management will want to see if the new found productivity gains can be translated into a leaner workforce. Thus, working longer hours, at home, during weekends, and during lunch may have, in the long run hurt us all.
If the Pharma management had suddenly added a 20% workload, there would have been angry crowds with pitchforks and torches (figuratively, that is; true geeks would probably refuse to wear their pocket protectors in protest) storming the offices. However, as with cooking frogs1, slow and steady wins the race (I love mixing metaphors). Over the recent past, the American workers’ increase has also been slow and steady; we didn’t notice we were being cooked (in a manner of speaking).
            I am not saying that that the solution is simple or easy, but that attacking one part of a problem without viewing the whole problem may do more harm than good. Take the science and math gap, mentioned at the beginning of the column. 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. In the late 1950s, when the US started launching rockets, the kids entered engineering schools in droves. Science was sexy, period.           
What we need is merely marketing. Make it desirable to go into science and math and they will come. 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, he will jump out; if he is placed in cool water and it is slowly heated to boiling, he will be cooked.
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