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.

But there's an even bigger problem with pushing STEM education: the jobs, in many cases, are not there. Now, this is a point of great argument, because the jobs may well be there in some fields. But not over the whole area. A lot of people with physics and chemistry degrees are having trouble finding work, and in my own degree field (synthetic organic chemistry), it's been a real feat not having your job evaporate out from under you. In many cases, these jobs are going off to lower-labor-cost areas like China or India, but some of them are just disappearing outright. In either case, cranking up the number of eager graduates will not help the situation.

I realize that this sounds like the rent-seeking voice of someone who still has a job, and would prefer that the labor market stay tight. But at this point, I'm not competing against someone right out of a post-doc position; I'm up againstĀ  the cost/benefit of having someone experienced like me around at all. The folks who are just coming out of PhD programs or post-docs, though, are having a rough time of it competing against each other.

My solution? Well, I agree with Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation that we would be well served by making science and technology jobs more prestigious (says the guy who has one), although I've no idea of how we would go about that. But that only helps the fields that have a labor shortage - exalting the shrinking number of medicinal chemistry jobs seems rather pointless. In the end, the best advice I have is Virginia Postrel's view, in her column "How Art History Majors Power the U.S. Economy." It's futile, she says, to try to make the labor markets flow in the directions you think they should go:

The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or "green" industries. It's just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.

Be light on your feet, in other words. Learn how to learn, and don't assume that you've ever won some sort of lasting job security, because lasting job security isn't something that the world's economy is built to deliver these days. You may feel, like Evelyn Waugh's Mr. Scott-King, that outfitting someone to survive in the modern world is a rather wicked thing to do, because this isn't very comforting advice. But we don't owe people comfort when the truth would serve them better.