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Ever since Craig Barrett retired as Intel’s CEO, he has made it his life’s mission to improve U.S. competitiveness. He believes that the way to do this is to teach more math and science.
And he believes we need to graduate more Ph.D.s in science and engineering.
I wholeheartedly support improvements in education and know the value that math and science skills provide. But the problems I see in U.S. competitiveness aren’t related to the numbers of engineering Ph.D.s or scientists that we graduate. American companies are shifting R&D abroad because it makes economic sense for them to be near growth markets, and they can hire talented workers at a lower cost. It isn’t about deficiencies in American workers or a weakness of U.S. math and science education.
We are graduating enough Ph.D.s in science and engineering. The problem is that the majority of these graduates are foreign nationals (who are now increasingly returning home).
American’s don’t consider it worthwhile to complete advanced science and engineering degrees because it doesn’t make financial sense for them to do so. Research by Harvard economist Richard Freeman showed that because salaries for scientists and engineers are lower than for other professions, the investment that students have to make in higher degrees isn’t cost-justified. Doctoral graduate students typically spend seven to eight years earning a Ph.D., during which time they are paid stipends. These stipends are usually less than what a bachelor’s degree-holder makes. Some students never make up for this financial loss.
Foreign students typically have fewer opportunities and see a U.S. education as their ticket to the U.S. job market and citizenship. Hence, 60% of U.S. engineering Ph.D. graduates are foreigners.
Today, few young Ph.D.s can get started on the career for which their graduate education purportedly trained them, namely, as faculty members in academic research institutions.
Instead, scores of thousands of them spend the years after they earn their doctorates toiling in low-paying, dead-end postdoctoral “training” appointments (called postdocs) in the laboratories of professors, where they ostensibly hone skills they would need to start labs of their own when they become professors. In fact, however, only about 25 percent of those earning American science Ph.D.s will ever land a faculty job that enables them to apply for the competitive grants that support academic research. And even fewer—15 percent by some estimates—will get a post at the kind of research university where the nation’s significant scientific work takes place.
So, if we create incentives for American children to study math and science and to complete advanced degrees, the magic will happen. In addition to math and science, we should teach our children about world culture, geography, and global markets. In the era of globalization, these subjects are equally important. And while we fix the incentives for Americans, let’s do all we can to keep the best foreign students who come to the United States to study, here, so they are competing on our side.
I wholeheartedly agree that we need to improve K-12 education and I agree about the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. The question is, how do you motivate American children to enter fields like science and engineering that are harder than others to learn, don’t provide the economic rewards, and aren’t considered “cool?” We can’t force our children to do Ph.D.s in math.
When American children choose to study science or engineering, their friends call them geeks or nerds—they are made to feel inferior. Their Indian and Chinese counterparts are held in high regard by society and end up at the top of the social ladder. Indian and Chinese engineers and scientists are often national heroes. Here, our kids idolize football players and rock stars.
We can’t also just tell our children that the nation’s competitiveness and standard of living depends on them making sacrifice and completing advanced degrees in math and science. They won’t care. We should definitely improve the K-12 education system. Our corporations should also invest in workforce development, provide tax breaks for research, and we should fix our university research system.
The problem of American children not being motivated to become scientists and engineers is very real. My top students at the Masters of Engineering Management Program at Duke University still vie for high-paying investment banking jobs; they don’t become engineers. It is the same with our top Ph.D.s in math; they become quants at investment banks. Their talents end up being used by investment banks to find new ways of bilking the financial system.
We need to create excitement about science and engineering at the national level and motivate our best and brightest to become engineers and scientists. And we need to make it worthwhile financially for them to help our country stay competitive and to solve the problems facing our planet. This is as much a marketing problem as it is an investment problem.
Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. You can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa and find his research at www.wadhwa.com. Originally published in TechCrunch.