Going to Hell #8: Maybe It's Later Than We Think?

A researcher responds to "America going to hell?" and says ... maybe we are.

Last month I had a series of responses (latest one here; links to all the rest when our previous "category" feature is restored) on the question of whether America was really going to hell -- and if so, what might be done about it. Original "going to hell" article here.

The previous entries, plus many more still in the queue, were mainly about alternative prescriptions -- ways to deal with the filibuster, the role of money in politics, the calcification of the Senate, and so on. The one I'm about to quote concerns my diagnosis: that the United States remained strong in its resilient and creative powers, and is troubled mainly by an obsolete governing system.

Below and after the jump, a long dispatch from a reader who is a university-based research scientist and department chair, questioning whether America's two, related commanding-heights advantages -- its dominant research-university system, and its role as magnet for high-end talent from around the world -- are as durable as I suggested:

I enjoyed reading your article on the historic American sense of fear of decline and rejuvenation. However, I wanted to comment on your discussion with regards US science in comparison with rapidly developing countries like China.
First, a bit of background about myself. I am a plant molecular biologist involved in crop biotechnology and grew up in the US from Canadian parents who later moved back to Canada. I worked in the past for two of the largest agricultural biotechnology companies in the US... and currently have a large research collaboration with XXX. Further, people who I have trained or worked with are in the research organizations of all of the large agricultural biotechnology companies. Finally, over the last few years we have set up research collaborations with many researchers in China including developing a large collaboration between the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and my Canadian university, XXX. s such, I have travelled to China 3 times in the last 2 years and hosted many researchers from there. That is enough about me.
A. You comment on the continuing preeminence of American universities and this is certainly still true. You also comment on the fact that Chinese universities train many students but focus too much on rote learning to hope to be competitive. And yet- a high percentage of the best graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in North American universities come from China (and India).
My lab as a microcosm- out of 15 only 3 come from Canada. Therefore, either our best students do not go into science and engineering (see below) or they are not as good in competition with their peers in Chinese and Indian universities as you would have us think. [JF note: Some of each might be true, but also that U.S. and Canadian universities attract candidates from around the world and so have a disproportionately foreign talent pool, just as the NHL has a disproportionate number of Czechs and Swedes, and the European/English soccer leagues attract the best talent from the Americas.]
With regards this latter point, it is important to remember that having a relatively small number of the best students from the best universities in China going into research is enough to be competitive. The change in the competitive landscape is dramatic. When I did my graduate work in the late 1970s in Wisconsin, we had two Chinese visitors to our lab and they knew almost no science and seemed pretty hopeless. When I took my first job [with a major drug company] North Carolina (1984) all of the people hired were from North America or Europe. When I first came to [Canadian university] (1988-1998), the vast majority of my students and postdocs were from Canada with a small number from China near the end of that time. Now as I noted a high percentage in my lab come from Asia and this is mirrored in company research organizations.
B. As you noted, in the past most of the best researchers from China and India stayed in North America and this was a tremendous boon. However, now many even established scientists are going back and newly trained people are doing the same. Our life-style is still very attractive to them, but the career opportunities are often much better back in their home countries. In China, they have attracted back many outstanding researchers from around the world and are attracting back many of the best new trainees. Salaries for good people are competitive and getting better with strong bonus incentives for success. Research funding is in general outstanding in my area at least (I don't know about other areas) and many of the research institutes are first rate (the universities up to now not as much, but I suspect this will change rapidly as well). Most importantly, the private sector is making large investments. Looking at the three larges companies in this sector- Syngenta has a center in China; Pioneer in India; Monsanto in both. In a scary trend, a very high percentage of new hires will be in those countries over the next 5 years. This is not to downplay the ongoing problems- societal, environmental, quality of life issues, issues around research organization (way too many graduate students and not enough more senior researchers for example). However, compared to 10 years ago, there is a complete change in the competitive landscape with many papers in the best journals coming from Chinese researchers in China.
C. The other major issue is our failure to attract the best students into science and technology in North America. At my university, the best students in biology almost invariably want to go to medical school (or in our case vet school). Very few are attracted to the rigors of starting a research career- the long hours, the low pay for many years and the uncertainty of getting a good job in the end. It is hard to blame them- my own son is an example as he is medical school after always thinking that he would go into research. I won't go into all of the issues here, but as noted earlier when most of the best students come from elsewhere and they either do not come any more or don't stay after training- well then you have a problem.