Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Blood, Guns, and Death

Yesterday, I went to an event at Brookings and was mildly perplexed and perhaps more than a bit irritated when I heard more than one speaker say, more than once, that we need more STEM majors and workers in the US. I couldn't really understand the veracity of these claims given the number of foreign scientists that immigrate annually (Yes, we want more!), the growing pools of temporarily employed postdocs (see articles in Science Careers and Hypothesis amongst countless others), and the increasing rates of un- and under-employment of PhD holders. But rather than protest, I only scratched my head, sat quietly and listened for answers.

It's amazing how boldly and easily the speakers made this claim. After all, isn't this the same assertion for which the National Science Foundation was lambasted all those years ago?  I do understand that not all scientists are PhDs. (Although, I was surprised to learn at this meeting that the wage premium for holding a STEM PhD is less than that of a STEM Bachelor's degree, but that discussion is most certainly for another day.) I also know that circumstances vary with field of study and area of employment. But I wonder the level of nuance appropriate to bolster or counter such gross and emphatic claims.

I've been interested for years in the plight of the postdoctoral researcher and have tried, through numbers and data, to better understand the causes and implications of their circumstance. But this event suggests to me that perhaps its time to pop the bubble of existence that so many of us academic (perhaps, in my case, academic-ish) types work so hard to maintain. Are there really not enough scientists? Are there really too many postdocs? Do we really need to collect more data to understand what ails us, or we just using these claims to avoid dealing with reality?

Yes, I was a science major. And yes, numbers still fascinate me... but so now does the "real" world. I believe that science is a key to prosperity and that supporting it is in our societal interest. However, does that mean more is better? How can we do better with what we've got? What do the numbers suggest? So while I can't promise to deliver an eye-popping thriller that is rife with "Blood, Guns, and Death" (for that you'll have to watch Numb3rs), I do promise to do my best to piece together the many elements of this complex mystery...