NSF Funding: Friedman’s Take and Mis-Take

Thomas Friedman seems to be the only major member of punditocracy who gets the role science has played in our economic and political growth:

“Think about this. We are facing a mounting crisis in science and engineering education. The generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians who were spurred to get advanced degrees by the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik and the challenge by President John Kennedy to put a man on the moon is slowly retiring.”

The Mad Biologist: So far, so good.

“But because of the steady erosion of science, math and engineering education in U.S. high schools, our cold war generation of scientists is not being fully replenished. We traditionally filled the gap with Indian, Chinese and other immigrant brainpower. But post-9/11, many of these foreign engineers are not coming here anymore…”

The Mad Biologist: Um, not so good, Mr. Friedman. First, it does bother me that science education stinks in this country: I think everyone should be scientifically literate, just as everyone should know history and literature. But a shortage of scientists? If this were the case, then why is it so difficult for good scientists to find well-paying jobs?

Fundamentally, the problem is that science is not lucrative and consequently lacks status (not to mention renumeration). As salaries for other post-graduate professions have sky-rocketed relative to engineering and science, fewer and fewer native-born students want to become scientists. While part of the problem is the underfunding of science (I can’t see how someone with high levels of college debt could afford to go into science; the job insecurity due to lack of funding opportunities doesn’t help either), the other problem is that science has low social status.

Part of the low status comes from lousy salaries, but another cause is the incessant right-wing conservative warfare against intellectualism and “experts”. We’re a long ways from Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith. Instead, the “experts” are seen as lording their smarts over everyone else. In addition, there is a commonly-held belief that “folks” using (often truncated to “usin'”) common sense can ‘figure things out’. Unfortunately, many complex problems are not readily intuitve; in fact, they are often solved contra-intuition (e.g., resolving the “issue” of genetic load in population genetics). The problem is that we need “experts”–most people lack the training and knowledge to do molecular biology or solid-state physics, or for that matter, tax law.

Do we need more funding? Yes. But a little more respect would help too.

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