Science: The New Humanities?

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Two reports in the New York Times fit together all too well. Today we learn that CEOs are making weeks-long marathon tours of Asia (so much for telepresence; or rather it's Web-based services that make these excursions possible):

"It's not about costs and cheap labor. It's about how can we get access to talent, how can we get access to growth and innovations, and how can we get access to new partners," Wim Elfrink, chief globalization officer at Cisco, said in a telephone interview from Bangalore. "The demographic shifts and the massive process of urbanization here mean the region is going through a tremendous transition -- and to be part of that, and to really understand it, you have to be here." 

That may be good news for shareholders, and certainly for chief globalization officers, but it's not clear what it implies for North America's and Europe's scientific and technical work force, the men and women to whom 20th-century gurus thought the future would belong. Remember the Times story of two weeks ago, "Once a Dynamo, the Tech Sector Is Slow to Hire"?:

Government labor reports released this year, including the most recent one, present a tableau of shrinking opportunities in high-skill fields.

Job growth in fields like computer systems design and Internet publishing has been slow in the last year. Employment in areas like data processing and software publishing has actually fallen. Additionally, computer scientists, systems analysts and computer programmers all had unemployment rates of around 6 percent in the second quarter of this year.

While that might sound like a blessing compared with the rampant joblessness in manufacturing, it is still significantly higher than the unemployment rates in other white-collar professions.

The chief hurdles to more robust technology hiring appear to be increasing automation and the addition of highly skilled labor overseas. The result is a mismatch of skill levels here at home: not enough workers with the cutting-edge skills coveted by tech firms, and too many people with abilities that can be duplicated offshore at lower cost.

That's a familiar situation to many out-of-work software engineers, whose skills start depreciating almost as soon as they are laid off, given the dynamism of the industry.

There are still great opportunities for science and technical graduates in America -- for those who can qualify for a new transnational elite. For all that's written about excessive self-esteem and the Lake Wobegon Effect, in which all children are above average, it's rational for prospective students to wonder about their own prospects in a hyper-competitive global age. A Western marketing major, on the other hand, at least knows his or her society through immersion -- the reason for the CEO quest the Times described. Their local knowledge can be a form of protection, even if the goods they sell are increasingly designed as well as made overseas.

As Beryl Lieff Benderly wrote earlier this year in Scientific American:

Whatever model or models the nation chooses, many observers believe that the existing system of research by professors who constantly produce large numbers of scientists unlikely to achieve their career aspirations is near collapse. The real crisis in American science education is not young Americans' inability to learn, or the schools' inability to teach, but a distorted job market's inability to provide them careers worthy of their abilities.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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