Do We Really Need More Scientists?

Derek Lowe

Science. Technology. Engineering. Math. Everyone with a thought about higher education has a thought about the STEM subjects. Generally, these thoughts are about how we can get more people in the US to study them. But I've always wondered about that. As an organic chemist, when I tell a non-scientist what I do for a living, about 80% of the time I get "Oh, I hated that subject." "That's why I'm doing it," I often tell these people, "so you don't have to." They're usually grateful. These people (and there are a lot of them) would likely not have been lured into taking such classes at any age, and their current equivalents won't be, either.

There's surely an upper bound to the proportion of students who could usefully study the hard sciences. We can argue about what that number is, but not, I think about its existence. Stipulating that, the question becomes whether we should find ways to get the smartest and hardest-working students into (or back into) these fields, which would mean dragging some of them away from business and law careers. But there's a potential problem there, too: if money and social standing are your motivating factors, you've probably ruled out the sciences for those reasons alone. Now, I make a good living in the pharmaceutical industry. But my salary is pocket change to the hedge fund people. I definitely did not go into science to become rich.

There's another factor that doesn't get as much attention as it should: It takes a certain personality type to really get into this stuff. "Yes, it does," I can hear people saying, "and it's the one that we call nerdy." That can help, true, although not all of us in the labs live the stereotype. But what a lot of us do have in common is that we've made curiosity our jobs. We like figuring things out and making complicated things work, and if that's what gets you up in the morning, it's hard to imagine then going off to a job where you know what's going to happen. There's really nothing like the feeling of running an important experiment. You don't know what's going to happen, because nobody knows what's going to happen. The universe is about to say whether this idea you're testing is right or not, and you're going to be the first to know. But you get to pay for that privilege, in the amount of hard work it takes to get to that point, the mental discipline it takes not to cut corners or fool yourself, and the whole risk/reward ratio. The bigger, more powerful, and more startling your new discovery, the bigger the fool you might look for trying to realize it, or even propose it in the first place. If you like this sort of thing, there's no substitute, but it's definitely not for everyone.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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