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The science education mantra September 28, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, societal commentary.
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I can’t help but wonder why there is this huge cry to improve science education, but yet another article came out saying that the US is falling behind.

Although U.S. school achievement scores have stagnated, harming the economy as employers look elsewhere for competent workers, the report says that other nations have made gains.

If U.S. students matched Finland’s, for example, analysis suggests the U.S. economy would grow 9%-16%.

“The real point is that we have to have a well-educated workforce to create opportunities for young people,” says Charles Vest, head of the National Academy of Engineering, a report sponsor. “Otherwise, we don’t have a chance.”

I’m a bit perturbed by Vest’s comment. Having a well-educated workforce means that you have a well-educated workforce. It does not mean that workforce has sufficient job opportunities. It does not mean that this workforce will have anything to do once they get out of college. I think the emphasis should be the other way: how can we create opportunities for a well-educated workforce, particularly one that is more expensive than nearly any other group of workers in the world? It takes very little to price oneself out of the job market in technical areas in the US.

I also fail to see how pumping out more science grads will cause our economy to grow when, as mentioned later on in the article, there are three times more science and engineering college graduates than job openings each year.

How is oversaturating an already saturated market going to help especially when older engineers are being scrapped for younger, and younger for their cheaper overseas counterparts? Scientists cannot find jobs in their fields, and the competition for science positions is extremely fierce.

And, of course, there’s this zinger: China has replaced the United States as the world’s top high-technology exporter. Is it possible this has nothing to do with educational level and is due instead to the fact that businesses are going to find ways to minimize their costs, which is often accomplished by outsourcing? Businesses are profit-driven, and they will take a hit in quality if it means production is cheaper.

This whole argument about improving science education in order to bring economic improvement is very much like having a wound on the bottom of the arm and then putting a bandaid on the top of the arm because that’s the part that’s the easiest to see. It simply doesn’t accomplish anything.

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Comments»

1. Chris Gammell - September 28, 2010

Perhaps the argument is that 3:1 is the best candidate to opening ratio around these days?

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2. FrauTech - September 28, 2010

Clearly it’s a short term business argument, not a long term sustainability argument. I think the created jobs are supposed to come from science, engineering and technology professionals who go on to start their own successful businesses. Maybe they’re suggesting we just increase the mass coming out of school so that more people don’t have the option of having a job and more people will be tempted to start their own businesses. But again, with low cost centers like China, what can we really do here to complete? And even if someone starts a business, in order to stay competitive, who they can really hire?

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3. Fluxor - September 28, 2010

“analysis suggests the U.S. economy would grow 9%-16%”

I’d like to see what that analysis looks like. I’m thinking it goes something like this. US is 48th worldwide in math. If the US can get to 6th, that’s 8x better. And if you take the current growth rate of 1.1-2% per annum current and multiply it by 8, then it’ll be 9-16%. I’m brilliant.

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4. Massimo - October 8, 2010

Cherish, with all due respect, I think you are way off base on this one.

Your commentary seems to be based in the very narrow viewpoint that a science degree is a waste of time unless it results in research-based (possibly academic) employment, as if no benefits could ensue to a nation from having a scientifically competent and literate workforce and public, regardless of whether they do science for living (something that only a tiny fraction can and will do at any time).
Don’t you find the argument plausible at all, that things like entrepreneurship, technological innovation, progress, are more likely to flourish in an environment where a substantial investment is made in science and technology ? Is it really an accident that the US, the place where the most significant technological advances have been made for decades after WWII, was also the country that invested most heavily in basic research ? Why is it that an emergent economy like China makes massive investments in basic research ? Are they nuts ?
You also seem to be buying into that absurd contention that some (few, actually) disgruntled science graduates are fond of trying to perpetuate, according to which a scientist not doing research in academia or national lab is likely collecting food stamps, when tons and tons of data show the opposite, namely that they do much better than average (you cannot count someone as “unemployed” or “underemployed”, who does not work on his/her dream job, come on now…).

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mareserinitatis - October 17, 2010

My honest opinion is that one can be scientifically literate without having a science degree. Frankly, getting a degree in science or engineering is a lot more work than many of the other fields out there. So, no, I don’t see that it really is worth it for most people to get a degree in the sciences or engineering if the jobs aren’t there to support them. For me, it becomes a quality of life issue. National metrics be damned, it’s really not worth it for a lot of people.

Now, if they feel that getting the degree is worth it, especially in light of the fact that they may not get the job they are really hoping for (which, honestly, is the case is almost every profession), then I think they should do it. But I don’t think the argument of an individual getting a degree in a field for the national good when they personally may not get out of it what they want is legitimate.

Frankly, if the US wants to do something, they ought to be figuring out ways to keep jobs from being shipped out so that people will be motivated to get those jobs and therefore go through the difficulties in getting the degree. There are an excess of people in science fields, and so continuing to push for more is really a big waste of time, especially given the fact that most of the science that is done is mostly contingent on an ever shrinking government budget.

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