Do We Really Need More Scientists?

Please do not miss Derek Lowe’s guest post – very well-informed education commentary by an insider scientist with decades of experience in drug discovery research:

(…) 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.


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.

Read the whole thing »

Virginia Postrel’s piece is also well worth a read.