The “Real” Science Gap

This article was circulating around Twitter the other day – its called The Real Science Gap and attempts to explain (in vast detail) some of the real issues behind the perceived science and engineering “shortages” in the United States. The premise is that the labour market, job shortages, universities and the government take advantage of scientists passing through academia, ultimately creating a culture which drives away potential scientific talent. That there isn’t a scientific shortage – but in fact, an oversupply for the design of the current system. This article is specific to the United States, although I’m sure much of it is applicable to Canada too.

The current approach — trying to improve the students or schools — will not produce the desired result, the experts predict, because the forces driving bright young Americans away from technical careers arise elsewhere, in the very structure of the U.S. research establishment.

Apparently, the growing average length of time it takes to complete a postdoctoral fellowship, combined with the falling incentive to actually remain that long in academia cause potential researchers to pursue alternate career paths. What complicates things, however, is that this situation is still extremely attractive for foreign postdocs who visit the states to study and research only on temporary visas. Thus, the talent built in American universities isn’t necessarily available for long-term research.

The obstacles facing today’s young scientists therefore don’t constitute temporary aberrations but rather are structural features of a system that evolved over a period of 60 years and now meets the needs of major interest groups within the existing structure of law and regulation. Essentially, this system provides a continuing supply of exceptionally skilled labor at artificially low prices, permitting the federal government to finance research at low cost.

What I also found interesting is that this article also turned upside-down some common “knowledge” about the quality of American primary and secondary-school education – arguing that it isn’t, in fact, inferior to those of other Western nations. Only that the comparisons were done incorrectly, and that American students actually rank equally or above counterparts in Europe or elsewhere. In addition, the number of students graduating from post-secondary programs in science and engineering isn’t falling, only that these students choose not to pursue long-term careers in those fields.

Anyways, I mentioned above that its a very long and laborious read; however it’s a completely different perspective on an old story I think a lot of us are used to hearing. In addition, the comment thread is definitely worth skimming through – there are a lot of interesting opinions in there.

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