Phony Science Gap?
Posted on February 22, 2006 Comments (24)
A Phony Science Gap? by Robert Samuelson:
It is good to see more people using the data from the Duke study we have mentioned previously: USA Under-counting Engineering Graduates – Filling 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.
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.
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.