May 1, 2008

Culture Wars Redux

Michael Feldman

I got my share of both condemnation and praise from last week’s rant about our anti-intellectual culture. I’ll save the attaboys for my personal file, but I’d like share a couple of the more coherent critical responses I received:

I absolutely agree that education is critical for innovation. It would be great to figure out how to encourage better math and science teachers in K-12 and ramp up the number of home grown engineers. But please stay out of the culture wars. Complaining about the other side, something popular in the US, achieves nothing and I’m tired of it. All that happens is half the people get angry.
I agree that a discussion on education should be started, and since HPC is right in the thick of it, please start it. But let’s make it a discussion and not a shouting match like all the rest of politics in the US. It’s about education, innovation, and creating jobs and solutions to tough problems. Stick to that and keep the religion and politics out of it.
The best groups I’ve seen that get the most work done consist of bright people that know their limits and appreciate what others bring to the table. If you want a good discussion you need to bring everyone to the table, from all political and religious backgrounds, and they need to respect each other.
— Matt Rosing

And this:

I take exception to your recent opinion piece on high tech and the anti-intellectual culture in America. I guarantee that Americans would flock to careers in high tech if it made economic sense. However, the cost of higher education has inflated at a much greater rate than the potential return — in science anyway. Salaries have simply not kept pace with the increasing cost of education (or energy, food, health care, etc.), and that’s using the governments own statistics, which are notoriously understated.

The absence of wage inflation has seriously undercut the American technology worker, who must finance a grossly overpriced four-year program, and then compete with foreign workers with a substantial financial advantage. That advantage involves a much lower cost, and in many cases free, base education in their home country, followed by compensation in a stronger currency (until now anyway).

Add to this the offshoring of white collar jobs in the IT sector, and you can understand a young person’s reluctance to take on high debt for such a gamble. Will the jobs be there? Can the debt be paid off even if a job is found? Will the job be secure? Provide benefits? Retirement? Increasingly, the answer to these questions has been no, no and no.
Americans can certainly do the math and understand that it does not make financial sense to go far into debt to pursue a career in science and technology in the current economic and political environment. Note that careers largely protected from this effect, such as law and medicine, have no such problems. So rather than impugn would-be American scientists, lets look deeper at the economic and political landscape that has shaped this disinterest — and also ask where we are going?
Strangely, I am somewhat optimistic about the future of American science. As the credit crunch deflates the cost of an education, the dollar continues to weaken and jobs in the service sector disappear, I believe that the trends that we have seen undercut American science may reverse. Add to this the looming bubble in alternative energy and infrastructure (see
Eric Jantzen’s recent article in Harpers), add incipient American nationalism, and you could see strong incentives for careers in science and technology redevelop.
–Matt Challacombe

Not sure I agree with all of that. Career selection is more than just an economic choice in modern societies. But economic forces may indeed end up trumping cultural decline to reinvigorate U.S. science. It is, however, hard to see how this comes about without more support from the public and the government.
At a U.S. National Academies symposium that took place on Tuesday, some big names in industry, academia and government offered their own assessment of the status of science and technology funding by the Feds. The event focused on examining the progress made since the National Academies issued their landmark report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, in 2005.
According to a ScienceNOW article, many of the event speakers offered a rather grim assessment of U.S. support for science. For example, Craig Barrett, Intel chairman of the board, chided the politician establishment for continuing to subsidize 19th century technologies (referring to the $290 billion farm bill), rather than switching their focus to 21st century technologies. He says the latter will be ones that allow us to compete globally.
Also from the article:

“I feel that we’re like Wile E. Coyote, chasing the roadrunner off the cliff and then looking around and realizing that there’s no foundation under our feet,” declared Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman astronaut, who runs a company that promotes science education. She talked wistfully of how the Apollo program had drawn her generation into science and engineering and how a similar national effort is needed now.

All three U.S. presidential candidates were invited to Tuesday’s National Academies symposium, but not surprisingly, none of them showed up. Of course, if there was a large voting block that actually paid attention to science and technology issues, the candidates would be paying attention too. But of course, that’s my point.

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