Let's open up again that contentious subject of scientific jobs. In my entire memory, I have never once heard anyone editorialize that we are turning out too many scientists and engineers. A looming shortage has always been, well, looming. And these days, it's easy to wonder how much of a shortage there can possibly be. This USA Today article (link thanks to a longtime reader of this site) rounds up a lot of quotes from people in the game, and wonders about the same thing:
While there have been warnings for more than 50 years, a renewed push over the past four years has earned the attention of both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Speaking to the National Academy of Sciences in April, Obama announced "a renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science," fulfilling a campaign promise to train 100,000 scientists and engineers during his presidency.
Only problem: We may not have jobs for them all.
As the push to train more young people in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — careers gains steam, a few prominent skeptics are warning that it may be misguided — and that rhetoric about the USA losing its world pre-eminence in science, math and technology may be a stretch.
I think that one muddying factor (as the article mentions later on) is that lumping all scientists, mathematicians, and engineers together isn't very useful. Civil engineering is very different from optimizing computational algorithms, which is quite different from medicinal chemistry, which is quite different from semiconductor research. When I hear people talk as if all these were part of a coherent whole, I sometimes get the impression that, because of the speaker's own educational background, they must seem to be one somehow. But it doesn't make sense to me.
That said, I know that employment prospects in our own field of drug research are very much on everyone's mind. The last year or two have been the worst I've ever seen for hiring in the industry. I go back only to 1989, but longer-serving colleagues report the same feelings. Looking over the ads that appear in the likes of C&E News certainly doesn't make a person think differently.
The unimpressive rate of successful new drug introductions, coupled with the rising costs of R&D (especially clinical trials), was already squeezing us before this whole economic downturn hit. Outsourcing was one big response to that (again, pre-downturn), and we've hashed over that issue around here several times. (The downturn's effect on the outsourcing business has been mixed, by the way, as far as I can see. Some companies may have increased their offshore work, but others have cut back on it as one form of discretionary spending).
But back to the big questions, which are pretty damned hard to answer: are there technical/scientific fields where the US has too many people for the jobs available? If so, are these situations part of various cyclical trends, or are they full secular downturns, or what? Did we get there by training too many people for a job market that was otherwise in reasonable shape, or did the number of positions start to fall and not hold up that end of the process, or both? And where are all these variables going in the future?
I don't know, and I'm willing to bet that no one else does, either. When you're listening to someone talk about these issues, though, I think that there are several things to look out for that might indicate that the person you're hearing has not thought things through well enough. First off, there's that everything-in-one-category problem that I mentioned above. Anyone who seriously wants to address the issue in that fashion hasn't, I'd say, worked on the problem long enough. Secondly, I think it's fair to say that anyone who seems to uncritically accept the idea of a severe shortage of manpower across the whole technical/scientific area is not arguing from a position of strength. Unfortunately, that category has, in the past few years, included people like Bill Gates, various cabinet secretaries, heads of the National Science Foundation, and other such riff-raff. This isn't helping to clear the air.
Next, anyone who brings up the numbers of Chinese and Indian graduates in these areas, especially anyone who just quotes numbers of "engineers" without breaking things down more, needs to think harder. It's true that impressively huge numbers can be quoted, but (sad to say) they're not all they're cracked up to be, at least not yet:
Even Asia's much-touted numerical advantage is less than it seems. China supposedly graduates 600,000 engineering majors each year, India another 350,000. The United States trails with only 70,000 engineering graduates annually. Although these numbers suggest an Asian edge in generating brainpower, they are thoroughly misleading. Half of China's engineering graduates and two thirds of India's have associate degrees. Once quality is factored in, Asia's lead disappears altogether. A much-cited 2005 McKinsey Global Institute study reports that human resource managers in multinational companies consider only 10 percent of Chinese engineers and 25 percent of Indian engineers as even "employable," compared with 81 percent of American engineers.
So there's that to consider. And we haven't even talked about the various solutions proposed, even stipulated what the problems are. Pour money into education? Industrial policy? Retraining? Tax incentives? It's a mess. I guess my main message is to beware of anyone who tries to tell you that it's a reasonably understandable one.