Why Physicist Michio Kaku Is Wrong About U.S. Science Students: It’s the Incentives, Stupid

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 scienceif 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.

This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Why Physicist Michio Kaku Is Wrong About U.S. Science Students: It’s the Incentives, Stupid

  1. Ruth says:

    My daughter earned a 36 on her science ACT and has done well in AP classes. She will study biology in college, but will there be any jobs for her? I’m still unable to re-enter the work force in my field (med chem) after years off tending kids/parents. And if not science, what well paying fields would take me at age 50+?

  2. Brane says:

    I could not agree more.
    I’ve stuck with science through college and my PhD because it was my passion. I was willing to trade salary for the perks that one gets as an academic scientist. Some amount of flexibility and independence. I get to work on things interesting to me.
    Over the years life priorities change, the difference in salary had I gone the “Goldman Sachs” route continues piles up. The hoop jumping and lottery-like job market are a major drain. It has been 10 years since I finished college an I still haven’t even passed the main filter, getting a TT job. Science, as a career, just loses a lot of appeal over time. I feel like I a working my ass off, for so-so pay and a chance to buy a lottery ticket. Passion or no, one can only do that for so long.
    I still think that my ideal career is in science, but much less so now than when I finished college.

  3. sevandyk says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I especailly like this bit:

    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.

    If I had been a little smarter, I would have gone into engineering (or at least chosen CS sooner). 😛

  4. JohnV says:

    Ruth, if she gets a BS in biology there are many jobs available. I recently put my PhD in microbiology to good use by being unemployed for 4 months between post-docs (yay 2nd post-doc). During that time I was amazed at the number of technician jobs available. And to be honest, at some places – including the world famous non-profit I did my first post-doc at – the technicians were paid 20% more than the post-docs.

  5. Ross says:

    I was lucky enough that the thing I was passionate about turned out to be a marketable skill. But the rest of my friends seem to fall into two groups: people who don’t have any real passion for their field, but went into it because they were competent at it and it was something they could make a lot of money at (One of them *actually believes his entire field is bunk* and that he’s just cleverly abusing the stupidity of the masses to exploit them for his own benefit), and those who now curse themselves for listening to people who told them to study the thing that interested them, and are now struggling to make ends meet in jobs that are at best very tangentially connected to their degrees.
    But we’ll never have a system that incentivises following your passion. Do you know who said that a proper well-run society would allow everyone to follow their passion and the government would subsidize some things and tax other things in order to make that all feasible? *Karl Marx* (Seriously, I think it’s in Das Kapital.)

  6. Greg Laden says:

    I’m starting to find Michio Kaku annoying. I like his anti-denialist stuff, but he has that whole “I do the hardest kind of science therefore whatever thought occurs to me is worth your time to hear” thing going. Reminds me of “I’m the Smartest Man In The World and know Fifty Four Languages” Murry Gell-Mann.
    I’ll be happy to be proven wrong… just a gut feeling at this point.

  7. Kuas says:

    Kaku is just telling businesspeople what they want to hear. Kaku actually has zero authority on the subject. He’s a hack self-promoter who hasn’t produced any quality research in decades. If you go to top US institutions (hint: that doesn’t include CUNY) you’ll find plenty of US born students, far more than enough to staff available faculty positions.

  8. DuaneBidoux says:

    I think there is something extremely important in this kind of comparison that I virtually never hear said. In the U.S. we believe everybody can and should be educated—this is a virtually unheard of belief in most of the developed world.
    When I moved to France to start teaching corporate executives English, and when I met my future French wife, it slowly dawned on me that there were kids at the HS level that would never be even remotely expected to be scientists nor would they even be trained unless they had shown an aptitude through testing. This decision was usually made for them at a very young age, often, in France anyway, by 14 or 15 at the latest.
    By the time my “to be” wife was 14 she had already been “slotted” into something called “Bach D” (or “C ,“ can’t remember) For her the route was set, and other than a few French and English classes her day (8 hours in France) was math, physics, chemistry (not biology which was a different track). This was her school day when she was 15, then 16, then 17, then 18. She had done Diffy eQ at 18.
    I guarantee that if at 18 she had gone and tested any hard science subject against one of our top science kids of the same age she would have blown his socks off. Even one of our science bound students will have had a third of the science hours she had when she got out of HS.
    When we moved back to the US (she was 22) she asked me what she should do. I told her “look into science or engineering.” She never looked back (nor needed to).
    I’m not sure how many kids were in her slot—but I don’t think it could have been more than 20% The rest were destined for non science fields (except for doctors in biology).
    Kids like my wife test against everybody we have. I used to believe the French system they had was very undemocratic and elitist, but they got kids exiting HS who are trained plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, and guess which ones are now having more trouble getting jobs (hint: not the college destined kids).
    I now believe we make a huge mistake in the U.S. not finding out what our kids are good at. Instead they go through one mold like there is one acceptable outcome. In doing this I believe we are doing a great disservice to the majority.
    (ps: her HS would have kicked my butt. Glad I wasn’t French)

  9. iPhone 5 says:

    My son got a high mark on his ACT, but he also mentioned that the number of people going into the pure sciences is decreasing greatly because of the financial incentives provided by financial risk analysts and other stuff

  10. Zach Pruckowski says:

    A lot of the same people who get fired up by bio or physics can at least find engineering or technology interesting, and they pay a lot better. This makes the trade-off into something like “chemistry that I’m passionate about but has low pay, or engineering that’s still kind of interesting and pays well” instead of the more difficult “science that I love vs. MBA that pays well”

  11. Vleck says:

    Kaku is just telling businesspeople what they want to hear.
    He started littering his popular science books with corporate name-dropping all the way back in the ’80s, which is why I tended to eschew them. Of late he’s been regarded as the science writer to emulate–can’t imagine why. :/

Comments are closed.