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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 6, 2012

How Not to Do Science Education

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Posted by Derek

Slate has one of those assume-the-conclusions articles up on science and technology education in the US. It's right there in the title: "America Needs More Scientists and Engineers".

Now, I can generally agree that America (and the world) needs more science and engineering. I'd personally like enough to realize room-temperature superconductors, commercially feasible fixation of carbon dioxide as an industrial feedstock, and both economically viable fusion power and high-efficiency solar beamed down from orbit. For starters. We most definitely need better technology and more scientific understanding to realize these things, since none of them (as far as we know) are at all impossible, and we sure don't have any of them yet.

But to automatically assume that we need lots more scientists and engineers to do that is a tempting, but illogical, conclusion. And one that my currently-unemployed readers who are scientists and engineers don't enjoy hearing about very much, I'd have to assume. I think that the initial fallacies are (1) lumping together all science education into a common substance, and (2) assuming that if you put more of that into the hopper, more good stuff will come out the other end. If I had to pick one line from the article that I disagree with the most, it would be this one:

America needs Thomas Edisons and Craig Venters, but it really needs a lot more good scientists, more competent scientists, even more mediocre scientists.

No. I hate to be the one to say it, but mediocre scientists are, in fact, in long supply. Access to them is not a rate-limiting step. Not all the unemployed science and technology folks out there are mediocre - not by a long shot (I've seen the CVs that come in) - but a lot of the mediocre ones are finding themselves unemployed, and they're searching an awful long time for new positions when that happens. Who, exactly, would be clamoring to hire a fresh horde of I-guess-they'll-do science graduates? Is that what we really need to put things over the top, technologically - more foot soldiers?

But I agree with the first part of the quoted statement, although different names might have come to my mind. My emphasis would be on "How do we get the smartest and most motivated people to go into science again?". Or perhaps "How do we educate future discoverers to live up to their potential?" I want to make sure that we don't miss the next John von Neumann or Claude Shannon, or that they don't decide to go off to the hedge fund business instead. I want to be able to find the great people who come out of obscurity, the Barbara McClintocks and Francis Cricks, and give them the chance to do what they're capable of. When someone seems to be born for a particular field, like R. B. Woodward for organic chemistry, I want them to have every chance to find their calling.

But even below that household-name level, there's a larger group of very intelligent, very inventive people who are mostly only known to those in their field. I have a list in my head right now for chemistry; so do you. These people we cannot have enough of, either - these are people who might be only a chance encounter or sudden thought away from a line of research that would lead to an uncontested Nobel Prize or billion-dollar industrial breakthrough.

To be fair, Slate may well get around to some of these thoughts; they're going to be writing about science education all month. But I wish that they hadn't gotten off on this particular foot. You've got to guard yourself against myths in this area. Here come a few of them:

1. Companies, in most cases, are not moving R&D operations overseas because they just can't find anyone here to do the jobs. They're doing that because it's cheaper that way (or appears to be; the jury's probably still out in many instances).

2. We are not, as far as I can see, facing the constant and well-known "critical shortage of scientists and engineers". There have been headlines with that phrase in them for decades, and I wish people would think about that before writing another one. Some fields may have shortages, but that's a different story entirely.

3. And that brings up another point, as mentioned above: while the earlier stages of science and math education are a common pathway, things then branch out, and how. Saying that there are so-many-thousand "science PhDs" is a pretty useless statistic, because by that point, they're scattered into all sorts of fields. A semiconductor firm will not be hiring me, for example.

There are more of these myths; examples are welcome in the comments. I'll no doubt return to this topic as more articles are published on it - it really is an important one. That's why it deserves more than "America needs more mediocre scientists". Sheesh.

Comments (53) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News | Who Discovers and Why


1. anana-mouse on June 6, 2012 8:37 AM writes...

One very productive avenue is to have HR's role in recruiting senior scientists abridged. Their rubric involved to discern creativity is literally an oxymoron. Have scientists bring in scientists and in an interview(s), put them in the Coliseum amongst the lions and see what they can do.

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2. cirby on June 6, 2012 8:40 AM writes...

"commercially feasible fixation of carbon dioxide as an industrial feedstock"

They're called "trees."

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3. The Iron Chemist on June 6, 2012 8:53 AM writes...

Good post. The relevant problem isn't minting new scientists and engineers, it's finding meaningful employment for the ones we already have.

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4. Virgil on June 6, 2012 8:56 AM writes...

The one thing I would like to see in science education, is for kids (not college age, waaaay before then) to actually learn the scientific method. Solid principles like...

- A hypothesis is useless if it can't be tested
- How will I know if the experiment worked?
- Correlation is different from causation

Such principles are woefully lacking in all branches of science education, and quite scarily they are often lacking in the teachers themselves (e.g., the number of shcools that teach creationism vs. evolution, which breaks all 3 of the above principles). Here's an old link about 65% of students in a science fair falsifying their data...

Forget about training more chemists/biologists/astrophysicists. If the kids leaving high school to pursue liberal arts courses don't get what science is, they'll grow up to be the same folks who vote down NIH budget increases, vaccuum up homeopathic cures, and whine because there's no "cure" for cancer yet (hint - there likely never will be).

Deal with the shocking lack of undersanding of what "science" actually IS in the minds of the general public, and the impact will be far greater than a thicker pipe full of new soon-to-be-jobless STEM graduates.

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5. Derek Lowe on June 6, 2012 8:57 AM writes...

#2 cirby: Well, yeah. But they're not the fastest things in the world, and they tend to take things a little bit too far, what with all that lignin and whatnot. I'm thinking more stop-at-methanol chemistry, and with a flippin' high turnover.

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6. opsomath on June 6, 2012 8:59 AM writes...

I'll see your crappy article and raise you a good one I found.

Between a strategy of teaching science that actually has students doing things, and a supply of good science jobs, we would fix any existing problem in a generation. Not gonna happen, though. We love standardization and outsourcing too much, and people smart enough to become a Whitesides or a Sharpless will do a runner to a more supportive industry early.

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7. DrugA on June 6, 2012 9:01 AM writes...

We need more efficient science. The greatest loss of productivity in our system (at least in publicly-funded life sciences research) is that the science enterprise is actually more accurately the grant-getting enterprise. Senior scientists spend a quarter to half (perhaps more) of their time writing grant applications. Only the top decile gets funded and generally not on the first submission. Grantsmanship is a skill that solves no social problems and contributes nothing to the greater good. Imagine if we could suddenly make academic scientists 25 to 50% more productive.

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8. jtd7 on June 6, 2012 9:10 AM writes...

You ask "How do we get the smartest and most motivated people to go into science again?" An article in the NY Times Sunday Magazine early in May pointed out part of the problem. The article profiled Edward Conard, a former partner at Bain Capital whose forthcoming book "Unintended Consequences" argues that income inequality is good for everyone. Investors are richly compensated because they make the economic system work for everyone else. At one point he uses this illustration:

Conard picked up a soda can and pointed to the way the can’s side bent inward at the top. “I worked with the company that makes the machine that tapers that can,” he told me. That little taper allows manufacturers to make the same size can with a tiny bit less aluminum. “It saves a fraction of a penny on every can,” he said. “There are a lot of soda cans in the world. That means the economy can produce more cans with the same amount of resources. It makes every American who buys a soda can a little bit richer because their paycheck buys more.”

That's true as far as it goes, but he didn't figure it out. An engineer figured it out, and figured out the machining process that can take advantage of it. As long as the engineer who did the real work is not recognized and compensated, of course the smartest and most motivated people are going into investment banking instead.

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9. PedroS on June 6, 2012 9:16 AM writes...

I remember reading Derek's posts about his introduction to Pharma research: as a newly minted academic researcher, his default setting was "synthesize from scratch" instead of ordering an expensive intermediate. His boss rightly told him that buying the expensive intermediate would reduce costs in the long run, as scientists then could devote their skills to highly productive, not-readily-outsourced, problems.

In short, doing modern science is a capital-intensive enterprise. Minting ever more and more scientists without the corresponding investment on research capital may be a less than optimal use of resources.

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10. anon the II on June 6, 2012 9:21 AM writes...

This kind of crap makes me so mad I could spit fire. And if David Plotz was in my general vicinity, I know in what direction I'd spit it.

But I've got work to do. After 25 years of what almost looked like a successful career, I'm now a post-doc. At least I have health insurance.

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11. MTK on June 6, 2012 9:31 AM writes...

Does anyone know the actual unemployment rate for chemists in the US? And not ACS numbers, because I don't trust those for a heartbeat.

We all know that a lot of chemists have gotten laid off the last several years, but how many don't get reemployed in the field and for how long do they stay unemployed? how does that compare to other professional fields?

I ask only because what we may feel is a "bad" employment situation may be a "shifting" employment situation rather than all out bad.

Now this can cause a lot of problems and anguish on a personal level and I fully acknowledge and recognize that. What I'm saying, however, is that perhaps the granularity that Derek is writing about, i.e. chemists as opposed to just scientists, isn't fine enough. Maybe we have to go even further to "chemists in Pharma". If that's the case, then it may be true even for chemists that there's a shortage and that its a distribution issue, along with the selection bias of this blog, which makes it seem like there isn't.

(and before you spit fire at me anon the II. I'm a postdoc right now also. My second stint two decades after my first.)

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12. John Schilling on June 6, 2012 9:31 AM writes...

America needs a lot more science labs and engineering firms. A scientist without a lab, an engineer without a firm, is at best inventing complex new derivatives for Wall Street and at worst flipping burgers. Or possibly I have that backwards.

I gather there is a perception in some corners that wherever there are scientists and engineers, the relevant institutions will crystallize without effort. Or perhaps that the excess scientists will go home from their burger-flipping jobs and discover the secrets of the universe in their basements and garages.

And I get the appeal, to people who are not in this community. Building or even just expanding scientific and R&D institutions requires real money, policy changes, sustained effort by people who are not scientists and engineers. "We need more scientists" just requires a bit of quick PR aimed at borderline-geeky high school kids nobody cares about, they switch majors in college, and presto! Fusion energy and all the rest! The innovation problem is solved without cost or effort.

How do we get the message out that thes does not work?

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13. Zen Faulkes on June 6, 2012 9:35 AM writes...

"Is that what we really need to put things over the top, technologically - more foot soldiers?"

Maybe - if those foot soldiers are given bullets and body armor.

The "rate limiting step" for many scientists is NOT intellectual dullness (which this post implies). It's not lack of ideas. It's not lack of hard work. It's resources.

An army where only 10% of the soldiers are armed can't win a damn thing.

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14. rab on June 6, 2012 9:40 AM writes...

Great post, Derek

I agree with a lot of your respondents that the original article is simply lazy journalism.

I think an even more important point is that we need the general population, and the Arts graduates that rule our countries (I'm in the UK) to have more scientific understanding. Or at least not to be afraid of science, or so in thrall to the idea of science being "a good thing" that they fall prey to the snake-oil-peddlers.

For example, a couple of years ago, the UK government got a venture capitalist to do a top-to-toe review of Life Sciences in the UK. Guess what his conclusion was? You guessed it-we need more venture capitalists.

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15. lt on June 6, 2012 9:43 AM writes...

"Ex falso quodlibet" - so how can people with different premises (models of reality) every come to rational agreement? Having more people who have learned that there is an objective reality, of which we have only a tentative and fragmented understanding (science), would seem to be the only sane way to build a stronger community. It seems we do not need more scientist as much as more appreciation of science itself as a basic way of making sense of the world
One of the best and most unique aspects of science is that there is (at least in theory, often in practice) an objective criterion for (eventually) deciding who or what is right, which goes beyond convincing others using arguments based on subjective social values and neurobiological quirks. This obviously appeals to those who are not good at persuasion (most geeks) and not at all to natural born BS artists. But as long as BS gets one to the top, there’s really no need to find a common understanding based on a shared model of reality.

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16. Anonymous on June 6, 2012 9:43 AM writes...

From the cell biology PhD (cancer research to be specific) perspective...The same prereqs are used for entrance in medical, pharmacy, nursing, dentistry, etc. professional schools as they are for PhD graduate education. The exception being the standardized test to get in. Why spend 6 years on a PhD and 4 on a postdoc when you can do 4 on med school and 3 on residency? Then make 3-5x as much out the door, with WAY better job security. And if you ever want to get into research your MD is a huge shoe-in. Just write "translational" on your grants and force the PhDs to put you on their papers for clinical relevance, etc...There are too many reasons to list, but basically you have to be dumb to want to get a PhD in a field of medical research. Obviously some American students see through this, so they don't go the research route...but alas our American academics will import an endless flow of workers.

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17. Chemjobber on June 6, 2012 9:54 AM writes...

@11 (MTK):

The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures chemist unemployment at 6.1% for 2011 through the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. (Click on my handle for link.)

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18. GC on June 6, 2012 9:55 AM writes...

This ranks right up there with that "we need more women in IT/computers/comp-sci" crap that pops up every 6 months.

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19. alig on June 6, 2012 9:55 AM writes...

Does Slate believe the decline in the number of newspaper reporters is because the US is not educating enough journalism majors?

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20. Anonymous on June 6, 2012 9:59 AM writes...

@17 Chemjobber

I wonder what the percentage is of those employed that are employed as chemists?

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21. Anonymous on June 6, 2012 10:03 AM writes...

Thanks for the number Chemjobber.

That's actually higher than I anticipated. My guess would have been from 4-5%. And I'm guessing that 6.1% is historically quite bad.

In your blog you do mention the other thing I thought of as a measure and that would be pay. If there truly is a shortage than salaries should be rising at a greater rate than other fields.

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22. Chemjobber on June 6, 2012 10:12 AM writes...

20: I believe that the number is extrapolated from direct measurement, i.e. their households are asked "What is your occupation?", "Are you currently employed", etc.

21: Median salaries