Is "Train More Scientists" the Answer to Our Economic Woes?

By Melissa Lafsky | March 27, 2009 2:52 pm

Over at Silicon Alley Insider’s Clusterstock blog, Joe Weisenthal has taken on the science establishment, slapping down the much-bandied conventional wisdom that the solution to society’s ills is to throw money at science education. In his trademark cavalier style, Joe slashes and burns his way through science-related sectors, arguing that more/better scientists are not what we need.

Is the underlying point fair? Absolutely—simply training more scientists in order to “solve” our economic and environmental problems is like ordaining more priests to “solve” the current marriage decline. But Joe’s details get sucked into the quagmire of poor logic, to the point where a few of them border on ludicrous. Take his stance on health care:

 Given the spiraling cost of healthcare, and the fact that few people are satisfied with our system, this is obviously one of the most fertile industries for growth. But our problem isn’t a lack of science. Our problem isn’t that engineers haven’t created enough dubious miracle pills. It’s that our conception of the system is wrong. We have antiquated models for healthcare delivery on all kinds of fronts, from how it’s paid for to who patients see when they get ill.

We’ll be the last to say there’s no room for improvement in the health care system. There are countless opportunities for improving treatment effectiveness and efficiency that don’t involve just training more doctors (though we need those too, in a BIG way). Computerization of medical records, while not a simple task, will ultimately save time, money, and lives. But halting funding for drug research—particularly when we’re on the cusp of some pretty remarkable new stuff—is pretty absurd.

Then there’s his take on education (we’re assuming he means the larger education system, and not just scientific courses of study):

Our system is in shambles and has been dysfunctional for a long time. We have a huge problem of matching students up against the type of education that would suit them — more vocational training for many of them would be good — and for many students there’s no upside in being educated. It’s a gaping opportunity, but it’s not a science question. It’s more a matter policy and design than anything else.

Well, actually, there is an upside in properly educating our population: Not doing so leads to a disastrous, dogmatic mess that erodes the integrity of education—not to mention causes expensive and pointless ideology battles that take our attention away from problems like oh, say, the looming financial and environmental apocalypses.

But the main problem with Joe’s central argument is this:

Science education isn’t just about teaching 11th graders where dinosaurs came from (which we can’t even do correctly). It’s about investing in our role as a superpower. Since the second World War, the superiority of American science and technology is what has made the U.S. a world leader, with our engineering/tech/medical innovation pumping billions into the economy and establishing all that world dominance we’re now so in danger of losing. If we stop valuing (and funding) research labs that house scientific innovators, and squelch scientific progress for dogmatic reasons—both of which we’ve been doing steadily over the past 8 years—then we risk losing that innovation to other countries—which has already begun happening.

So no, the answer isn’t simply to throw money at education—or at banks, or newspapers, or corn farmers. We need careful assessment of the specific issues in each science-related industry, and enactment of a variety of solutions. But education in all its forms has been, and remains, a pretty crucial cog in this wheel.

Plus we really do need more doctors—unless Boomer-spawn like us want to care for all those aging parents ourselves.

Comments (260)

  1. Mike Gottschalk

    Good morning Adam,

    I finally got to watch your vblog with Eliezer yesterday, and this morning I found some insight into your dialogue over consciousness with him. This insight centers on our distinguishing between, “how a thing happens” and “that a thing happens”. I saw the point you were trying to make with Eliezer concerning subjective consciousness, and the way I would now put it is, ” knowing how subjective consciousness happens, doesn’t relieve me from the fact, that subjective consciousness happens”. Further, as I think about this, I can let the information of “how” have E ffect on me, but in the end, it is only I that can A ffect my subjective consciousness- this one behind my eyes.

    I’m commenting here because Human Being rides a huge wave of effects that stem from the Quantum world, and conceptually rises into the infinite (or in your case as an astro- physicist- realistically). Yet, in a space that may only compare in size of a surfboard to that of the ocean, we have the power and freedom to affect not only an ocean, but a whole world, a future, and even a future’s history. The question posed in “train more scientists” is embedded in the larger question of , “how can we affect the making of collective life to better support the full experience of Human Being?”

    To me, when it comes to star formation, the question of- how it happens seems paramount to- that it happens. For Human Being however, that such prowess of consciousness happens, precedes our ability to ask, how it happens: When Eliezer leans back proudly having inserted the last puzzle piece into the ultimate theory as to the how of consciousness, we will still exist in an age old predicament which arises from the fact, that we are subjective consciousness; we will be better informed, but our response-ability will not be made any less.

    It seems to me that the spiritual endeavor centers on, that it happens while the scientific endeavor centers on, how it happens: It is the human endeavor that combines the two, and it is this endeavor in which I’m most interested.

  2. Mike Gottschalk

    As an aside, I’d like to comment on your vblog via the original t.v. version of Star Trek:

    One underlying theme running through the show, was a comparison of a full-fleshed intelligence represented by Kirk to an abstracted portion of intelligence- logic- represented by Spock. Eliezer reminded me of Spock, and a young one at that. Watching your dialogue with him, I saw your “Kirkyness”….

  3. Spending on science education will not in itself solve our economic problems, but NOT spending will almost certainly guarantee a more impoverished future and a serious decline in the United States economic and scientific leadership. I’m sorry to see many state legislatures seem to view science and education with not just indifference, but hostility.

  4. MadScientist

    Beware of people who will sell you a cure for everything. I always marvel that people say such things as “training more scientists is the solution”. It was only a few days ago that I argued against the proposition that the economy would be better off with scientists running Wall Street – and I’m a scientist.

  5. I am surprised at the comments on health care here. I think that system needs to change in a big way because in its current form its a scam. We have companies making products and pursuing policy to protect them from liabilities that the preponderance of evidence indicates they make people sick, in the utility industry, manufacturing and especially in the Monsanto dominated agribusiness. So, make people sick, uh creating a market, then design high priced drugs to maintain their illness instead of cure the illness or address its cause and allow middleman insurance companies to divert (extort) more health care dollars out of health care. Hospitals and doctors both have to hire people, or even have whole departments, to deal with the middlemen taking even more dollars away from health care. Most developed countries have at least eliminated the 25%+ management costs of the middlemen in favor of a 3% management cost (single-payer) handled by government or other non-profit entity. How we got this way is allowing a government to be occupied by the profit motivated corporate sector that operates according to the old New Jersey street saying “make a law, make a business” that controls elections as well as legislation. This in fact affects every human endeavor in the nation including education and scientific research. Perhaps some of you need to turn your head away fromthe microscope, or telescope, once in a while to look around and see what is happening. The polarization we find in the science/religion debate is matched by other polarizations in society(divide and conquer) all useful to management. Consider the effort by the dominant corporate sector to irradiate food instead of decentralizing and cleaning up the food production and distribution system. It seems that profit goals trump good science. You might have to read a bit of history as well to discover that corporate “legal” person hood was achieved through a crooked back door(1885) as was the complete control of our currency(1913) and education system(1915). So look at what is going on in Texas through the lens of what is convenient for a social management system that does not want people to be too smart, to not even have to tools to be adults. Uneducated childish people are easier to manage, scientists trained not to examine the morals of the system are more likely to do the dirty work required to come up with the scientific “breakthroughs” that management finds convenient and profitable. Keeping religion and science apart is a management priority because their being united in a persons psyche is a sign of maturity, giving one a perspective that isn’t as easy to exploit …one way or another. Of course there is the problem of escapees from the doctrinal system who must always be marginalized.

  6. Consider the idea that the health care industry “is obviously one of the most fertile industries for growth.” We have tumors being calculated as part of the ‘Gross Domestic Product’. How does science or religion deal with this growth? Obviously all growth is not good.

  7. Sarah Smith

    I didn’t think the problem is really about train more scientist. I think the problem is keep trained scientist in the field. Many scientist leave the field after working for a few years because of low pay rates and no opportunity for advancement. I use to be a chemist (bachelor’s degree) and made a lot less money than fork lift drivers and other blue collar workers. I worked as a chemist for 4 year but have recently left the field to study mechanical engineering. I’m planning on getting an MBA after the engineering degree. By following this path I can still do what I love but I won’t have to worry about paying basic bills such as food and rent if I’m an engineer. When I was a scientist my standard of living was very low, which resulted in my decision to leave the field.

  8. Steven

    I have to agree with Sarah’s comments. I have a Master’s degree in chemistry and am already investigating leaving the field after only 6 months. Our society just does not respect scientists. We say that we do. Yet, society demands such high education, then rewards scientists with such pathetic salaries that they can not pay back their student loans or even live a decent standard of living. I’m afraid a lot of the people calling for more scientists are those that would benefit from a surplus of labor they can continue to pay cheaply.

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