While physicist Michio Kaku is correct when he suggests that immigration has been an incredible boon for U.S. science, he’s dead wrong when he claims that U.S. students are bad at science:
The information revolution has a weakness, and the weakness is precisely the educational system. The United States has the worst educational system known to science. Our graduates compete regularly at the level of third world countries. So how come the scientific establishment of the United States doesn’t collapse?
When I first came across Kaku’s statement, I said to myself, “Crap. Am I going to have to refute this canard again?” Fortunately, my incessant diatribes seem to be making inroads, and Dr. Zen at NeuroDojo picks up the standard:
I part company with Kaku when he asserts that American students can’t do science (or that there aren’t enough of them – I’m not sure which he’s arguing). I work with plenty of smart American students. They can perform science at the highest levels. Mike The Mad Biologist has often noted that American students perform well in science – if you account for the bad effects of poverty.
It might be that many Americans don’t go into science not because they are incapable (or lazy or damaged by their education), but because they’re smart. Americans might not pursue scientific careers for the same reason that they don’t pursue careers as migrant crop pickers or maids: there are better ways of making a living out there than being a researcher.
I agree. Most U.S. students who study science at the collegiate level do so for two reasons. One is that they are pre-med students, and need to take science courses (and majoring in science is believed to an advantage in admissions). The other is that the student has a ‘non-careerist’ passion for science, in much the same way that someone who pursues French history does so out of interest. When it comes to the next level, the Ph.D., I would argue most students aren’t viewing the Ph.D. as a professional degree in the sense an MBA is a professional degree. Instead, it’s almost a calling (which age and something like wisdom plains the edges off of…). Put another way, people who attend ‘good’ MBA, law and medical programs expect well-compensated employment after graduation (although that might be changing for law), so the undergraduate ‘feeder’ majors are well-stocked. But few science undergraduates have the same expectation, especially after talking with post-docs and graduate students, so there will be many fewer students. Only those with a passion, as opposed to merely an interest, will major in the sciences. That’s a huge filter.
But many students, even at supposedly elite institutions, lack this passion, and instead stumble into a career path that is convenient and lucrative:
Then midway through junior year at Exclusive College, you have to, for the first time in your life, cut your own groove. Some students are lucky because they’ve developed a passion, such as art, history, or even on occasion, biology. The next steps, in those instances, are pretty straightforward. But for a lot of students, they are suddenly cut adrift from the central organizing theme of their lives–and Goldman Sachs offers an easy way out…
And in terms of salaries, science is a sucker’s game–a twenty five year-old lawyer or investment banker who graduates from a good law school or MBA program, the same caliber of institution as those Ph.D. programs which disproportionately graduate many of our Ph.Ds, makes much more money than the average Ph.D. ever will:
When my father finished Harvard Law School in 1948, he went to work at one of the best law firms in New York. It was an era in which top-end legal work for the nation’s biggest companies was handled by a limited number of firms that drew their entering lawyers from a handful of schools. But that didn’t mean instant prosperity for the new attorney. Earning $3,600 a year, my dad shared a two-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village with three classmates. At the time a United States District Court judge was paid a salary of $15,000. Today, a judge’s salary has gone up slightly more than tenfold, a bit more than the increase in inflation. A new lawyer at the firm where my father worked, however, is pulling down well over 40 times what my dad first earned.
By the time you hit forty the difference is often magnified further. This is a major reason why students are staying away from science: unless you have a passion for it, it’s not viewed as a viable career path. So how do we fix this? Bemoaning the supposed failure of our educational system certainly isn’t the way to do it. Instead, we need to start paying researchers not as temporary-postdoc cum professors-in-waiting but as if they were professionals. We also have to recognize the larger economic context in which salaries occur: we need a more progressive tax code.
And scientists who call U.S. students stupid aren’t doing us any favors.