Phony Science Gap?

Posted on February 22, 2006  Comments (24)

A Phony Science Gap? by Robert Samuelson:

And the American figures excluded computer science graduates. Adjusted for these differences, the U.S. degrees jump to 222,335. Per million people, the United States graduates slightly more engineers with four-year degrees than China and three times as many as India. The U.S. leads are greater for lesser degrees.

It is good to see more people using the data from the Duke study we have mentioned previously: USA Under-counting Engineering GraduatesFilling the Engineering Gap. However, I think he misses a big change. It seems to me that the absolute number of graduates each year is the bigger story than that the United States has not lost the percentage of population rate of science and engineering graduates yet. China significantly exceeds the US and that India is close to the US currently in science and engineering graduates. And the trend is dramatically in favor of those countries.

There has been a Science gap between the United States and the rest of the world. That gap has been between the USA, in the lead, and the rest. That gap has been shrinking for at least 10 years and most likely closer to 20. The rate of the decline in that gap has been increasing and seems likely to continue in that direction.

Despite an eroding manufacturing base and the threat of “offshoring” of some technical services, there’s a rising demand for science and engineering skills. That may explain higher enrollments and why this “crisis” — like the missile gap — may be phony.

I wonder what eroding manufacturing base he is referring to? The United States is the world’s largest manufacturer. The United States continues to increase its share of the world manufacturing and increase, incrementally year over year. Yes manufacturing employment has been declining (though manufacturing employment has declined far less in the United States than in China). Granted China has been growing tremendously quickly, but they are still far behind the United States in manufacturing output.

From 1993 to 2003, the median salary of engineers with bachelor’s degrees and one to five years’ experience rose 34 percent (after inflation), to $58,000, the NSF’s Regets says. Among math and computer science graduates, the increase was 28 percent, to $50,000. By contrast, the average increase for non-S&E college graduates was only 7.7 percent, to $37,000. These are encouraging signs.

Good news.

Still, some, maybe including Robert Samuelson seems to confuse increasing salaries with the health of our science and engineering economy compared to other countries. We can easily lose our science and technology leadership without regard to salaries. Rising salaries versus other professions will help recruit people in the United States to science and technology jobs in the USA. However, that is just one factor in world science and technology leadership. If Europe, China and/or India continue to increase their scientific, engineering and technology strength they could surely decrease the existing leadership position of the United States and indeed could take it away. This could happen while salaries in the science, engineering and technology rise, fall or do not change versus other professions in the United States.

I think pop-economist often confuse the effect of salaries to balance supply and demand within an economy with a sign of how strong a certain field is in the world economy. It is true if the United States has rising science and engineering salaries this will likely be due to a strong demand for those positions to be filled compared to supply. That could be due to us producing so few scientists and engineers that we need have an under-supply and those needing their services must bid against each other. In this case we could see the USA science leadership gone and salaries increasing.

This could also be exacerbated if strong scientific communities grow in Europe, China and India (obviously they exist in those locations, so here we are talking about growth of those communities). If those centers encourage those interested in science and engineering, both from their regions and worldwide, to work at those centers that means those scientists will not be available for work in the United States. And they may lure USA scientists and engineers away.

It is true increasing salaries would also have global effects. If the USA continues to need scientists and doesn’t have enough high salaries can encourage scientists to move to the USA for such salaries. But if, as I suspect, many good opportunities are available elsewhere this will not have the same effect it has in the past when the options for leading scientists and engineers was much more limited than in will be in the future.

Additionally, the positive macro-economic effects of a strong scientific, engineering and technology community to an economy are not necessarily directly correlated to high salaries for those workers. That is one positive factor, but even if those salaries were not high the other benefits of innovation, manufacturing leadership, invention, etc. would still benefit the economy. So a country that is investing in the future could sensible target investments in science and engineering education even without increasing salaries pointing out that the supply and demand in the market was indicating a shortage of those workers. I think once again pop-economists are too focused on easy indicators of the market (like salaries to decide what national priorities should be).

India had very low paid science and technology workers only 10 years ago. They have shown, that by taking some sensible steps to develop an economy to take advantage of the engineering and technology expertise they have been able to dramatically increase those salaries and the economy of India. The first step was having an underutilized resource (potential workers with great knowledge and ability) that could be tapped. That investment was not made because of dramatically rising salaries. Economists can analyse what happened in the past (if they are good they can do so effectively). Investors and government policy makers (elected officials or bureaucrats) need to predict what the future will bring and invest accordingly.

If a country is considered one of the leading scientific centers of excellence in 2050 I would wager that the country will greatly benefit. I think most would still say the United States is currently the leader in science and engineering excellence. Will that be true in 2050? Maybe. Will the United States be in as good a relative position as it was 20 years ago. I would say there is very little chance of that. The debate about what the future holds is really over how slowly we can lose the positive gap we currently possess or over how close we can stay to the new leader whether that be Europe, Japan, China, India or somewhere else.

I would say the most likely future is that no clear overall leader exists. I would guess that centers of excellence will emerge and for various fields in not only in the USA but in China, Europe, India, Japan, Korea and elsewhere. I also expect that in those cases the people working in those centers of excellence will be drawn from all over the world.

In most ways I think this will be a positive development. But for those in the United States that have grown accustom to the advantages of being the clear leader will lose some of those advantages. And those loses will be greater if we don’t understand that others have seen that it is a great macro economic benefit to invest in science and engineering. China and India have tremendous economic struggles to overcome but they are very intelligently investing in science and technology development. I believe they will do very well economically based on those decisions. How successful they are overall will depend on how well some other factors play out.

The United States has several huge advantages. First inertia (many great centers of scientific excellence are here and people come here to work with them). Second the economic system. Third the social system (even if we have problems with gender gaps etc. we are doing much better providing opportunities to all our citizens than many others – though not all. Also the general positive view of new and innovative ideas and a general reluctance to impose dogmatic ideas is helpful). And English as the native language is likely a big benefit scientifically and economically.

24 Responses to “Phony Science Gap?”

  1. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Blog Archive » Engineers Discuss: Is America Falling Behind?
    March 4th, 2006 @ 10:59 am

    […] Phony Science Gap? […]

  2. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Blog Archive » Engineering Education Worldwide
    March 7th, 2006 @ 5:28 pm

    This article discusses the Duke study (USA Under-counting Engineering Graduates) proposing an adjustment to the numbers used for comparing engineering education results of the United States, China and India…

  3. CuriousCat: Blog Archive » Shortage of Petroleum Engineers
    May 14th, 2006 @ 12:54 pm

    “A total of 2,412 students are enrolled in petroleum engineering undergraduate programs in the United States this year, according to Lloyd Heinze, chair of the petroleum engineering department at Texas Tech University. That compares with 11,014 students enrolled in petroleum engineering programs in 1983…”

  4. The Economic Benefits of Math
    May 16th, 2006 @ 6:01 pm

    How high numeracy levels help the economy

  5. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Blog Archive » Scientific Illiteracy
    June 17th, 2006 @ 7:47 am

    […] There really isn’t much question scientific and engineering breakthroughs will continue to provide huge economic benefit to humanity; the question is where those advances will be made. I believe the USA will continue to be home to many of those innovations however that global share will decrease as others, especially Asia, are responsible for an increasing share. I believe, increasing scientific literacy of the country (for the USA or any others) will lead to that country increasing their share of global scientific and engineering advances and gain that country economic benefits. […]

  6. Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog » Blog Archive » Global Manufacturing Data by Country
    June 25th, 2006 @ 3:51 pm

    […] This data shows the United States manufacturing economy is continuing to grow and is solidly the largest manufacturing economy: which contradicts what many believe. It is true manufacturing jobs are decreasing in the United States and worldwide – China is losing far more manufacturing jobs than the USA. I including some information on the manufacturing economy in my post to the Curious Cat Science and Engineering blog: Phony Science Gap? and referenced my previous post here, Manufacturing and the Economy which reminded me that I wanted some updated data. […]

  7. CuriousCat: Blog Archive » The Future is Engineering
    July 1st, 2006 @ 3:49 pm

    “More than just graduating more and more engineers is required to gain powerful economic advantages. That is a good first step but today China, India, Korea, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom… should be looking at other things the USA has done right (in addition to investing in engineering education)…”

  8. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Blog Archive » Engineers in the Workplace
    July 16th, 2006 @ 11:36 pm

    […] Vivek Wadhwa again addresses the question: Engineering Gap? Fact and Fiction. This is a question that deserves a continued look – I still believe we do need more focus on educating more engineers: Additionally, the positive macro-economic effects of a strong scientific, engineering and technology community to an economy are not necessarily directly correlated to high salaries for those workers. That is one positive factor, but even if those salaries were not high the other benefits of innovation, manufacturing leadership, invention, etc. would still benefit the economy. So a country that is investing in the future could sensible target investments in science and engineering education even without increasing salaries pointing out that the supply and demand in the market was indicating a shortage of those workers. […]

  9. CuriousCat: Blog Archive » Math and Science Challenges for the USA
    August 12th, 2006 @ 5:52 pm

    “The United States may dominate many sectors of science and technology, but other countries are moving rapidly to take its place, said Griffin and other national leaders…

  10. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Diplomacy and Science Research
    August 21st, 2006 @ 10:08 am

    […] This is exactly they type of thing I said was happening in, A Phony Science Gap: This could also be exacerbated if strong scientific communities grow in Europe, China and India (obviously they exist in those locations, so here we are talking about growth of those communities). If those centers encourage those interested in science and engineering, both from their regions and worldwide, to work at those centers that means those scientists will not be available for work in the United States. And they may lure USA scientists and engineers away. […]

  11. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Engineering Jobs in Mexico
    September 14th, 2006 @ 7:25 pm

    […] Read more about lean manufacturing (Toyota Production System) that values the performance improvement over short term savings on our management improvement blog. The kind of thing that allows Toyota to make a great deal of money manufacturing in the USA while Ford and GM can’t seem to do as well. The hiring of engineers is another example why manufacturing is so important to an economy (other valuable jobs like engineering are associated with it). And another example of why having engineers is so important (without them convincing manufacturers to move will be difficult (and those you do will often be short sited companies that don’t provide the value to an economy that companies like Toyota do). […]

  12. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Engineering the Future Economy
    September 17th, 2006 @ 6:13 pm

    […] Today most nations, that have their act together, realize high tech jobs and a highly educated workforce are a huge key to economic success and they (governments often, but also companies, rich individuals and foundations) are taking action to position their country to do well. Anyone that is serious about this should read about How to cultivate Your Own Silicon Valley. […]

  13. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Inventor for Hire
    October 15th, 2006 @ 11:12 pm

    […] Good luck Nicholas. The combination of engineering knowledge and business acumen is exactly what drive economic success and why those striving for healthy economies try to create as many Nicolas’ as possible. The article is very good but why do people write such articles without links to relevant web sites site still? Learn more at the Open Design Forum web site. […]

  14. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » How Many Engineers?
    November 2nd, 2006 @ 2:36 pm

    […] A good read. I believe there is a difference between equilibrium for the individuals who choose to be engineers (or something else) and the equilibrium that is best for the economy of the country. The many advantages that having a strong engineering workforce is a huge part of why China, Singapore, Korea, India, USA, China, Mexico and many others are investing in that area. […]

  15. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Increasing American Fellowship Support for Scientists and Engineers
    December 6th, 2006 @ 9:48 pm

    […] A great research paper is available today from the Brookings Institution: Investing in the Best and Brightest: Increased Fellowship Support for American Scientists and Engineers by Richard B. Freeman.[…]

  16. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » USA Losing Brain Drain Benefits
    July 4th, 2007 @ 8:32 am

    […] have discussed before that my belief is the USA will not continue to be able to attract as large a percentage of the highly educated and skilled… as they have in the last 30 years. Obviously other countries will take actions that they believe […]

  17. CuriousCat: Authors of Scientific Articles by Country
    August 5th, 2007 @ 9:48 pm

    One compelling area is that of the location of authors of the top 1% of the most cited papers. The USA leads with 64.6% in 1992 and 56.6% in 2003. European-15 23.3% to 27.7%. Japan 4.2% to 5.3%. East Asia – 4 (China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) from .1 to 1.1%.

  18. CuriousCat: The Importance of Science Education
    October 28th, 2007 @ 9:45 am

    “As I have said before I disagree with those that believe the USA is producing more science and engineering graduates than the market demands. Smart leaders know the huge positive impacts of a large, well educated science and engineering workforce…”

  19. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » China’s Technology Savvy Leadership
    February 15th, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    […] I agree that the increase in science and engineering investment around the globe is a positive development. But the USA faces loses that it has enjoyed due to past technology leadership. […]

  20. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science
    February 24th, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

    Exactly what laws should be adopted to slow global warming is a political decision. The problem is not that politics and science can’t interact but how that interaction takes place…

  21. CuriousCat: Saving Fermilab
    May 31st, 2008 @ 7:21 am

    The world class research facility has been left to scrape together funds to pay the bills and has even had to auction off equipment and ask staff members to take pay cuts just to keep the lights on in the laboratories…

  22. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog: Keeping Out Technology Workers is not a Good Economic Strategy
    April 21st, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    The biggest impact of the USA turning away great scientists and engineers will be that they go to work outside the USA and increase the speed at which the USA loses its place as the leading location for science, engineering and technology work…

  23. Global Stock Market Capitalization from 2000 to 2012 at Curious Cat Investing and Economics Blog
    September 25th, 2013 @ 8:48 am

    […] The USA also has a chance to do very well – largely due to the international performance of many of the companies based there. I do expect to see a growing number of the top 100 market capitalization companies to be non-USA based companies over the next 20 years (mainly because the dominance the USA has there now is so large and many countries are doing smart things to drive successful businesses in their countries compared to 30 years ago). The USA did many good things, but probably more of the reason for the USA’s success if the bad policies elsewhere (as well as the post WW II position the USA was left in and the smart decision by the USA in the 1950s and 1960 to push science and engineering). Today many countries in Asia and Europe are better focused on the value of science and engineering than the leaders in the USA are. The USA is coasting on the huge science and engineering infrastructure built and nourished earlier. […]

  24. Steve Jobs on Quality, Business and Joseph Juran » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog
    March 31st, 2014 @ 8:21 am

    […] made some progress over the decades since this was recorded there is a long way to go (related: complacency about our contribution the USA has received from science and engineering excellence – when you were as rich as the USA was in the 1950s and 1960s more and more people felt they […]

Leave a Reply