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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: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 18, 2012

More "More Scientists" Debate

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Posted by Derek

My recent post here on whether the US needs a big influx of scientists and engineers has attracted some attention. Discover magazine asked to reprint it on their site, and then Slate asked if I would write a response for them expanding my thoughts on the subject, which is now up here.

It feels odd for me, as a scientist, to be taking this side of the issue. I even think that not enough people know enough science and mathematics, and would like for these subjects to be taught better than they are in schools. But there's something about the attitude that "America needs more scientists, even mediocre ones" that really doesn't sit right with me. Science, and scientists, aren't like coal. We can't be stored for later use, nor hauled around to do whatever job it is that Generic Scientists are needed to do. It's messier than that, as a look at some of the science and technology industries (like the one I work in) might illustrate.

Comments (38) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News | Who Discovers and Why


COMMENTS

1. Kevin on June 18, 2012 8:02 AM writes...

I think a lot of the problem is that journalism, pundits, etc have so little science that they don't realize that a chemist, a physicist, and an engineer are not really interchangeable. Never mind trying to convince them you (a pharmaceutical chemist) and I (polymer chemist)can't just walk in and do each others job.

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2. Rick Wobbe on June 18, 2012 8:25 AM writes...

American needs greater scientific literacy, not more scientists, "even mediocre ones". Having spent time teaching high school science, I have had to opportunity to see how the "make more mini-me's" approach operates and I am convinced that the approach and intent are ill-conceived and poorly executed and getting worse.

Let's take the argument to the extreme. If the entire population were scientists, "even mediocre ones", would science literacy improve? Maybe slightly, but I doubt it because I have met too many scientifically illiterate scientists. Moreover, I don't think that having an all-scientist population would fix what really needs fixing, science-based policy making, because policy making is controlled by non-scientific or anti-scientific economic and psychological forces that are more potent. Ironically, scientific study of how to trick us into believing things that are unproven or untrue has provided ever more powerful tools and growth to industries that inherently rely on such tricks: marketing, politics and lobbying.

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3. BioBritSD on June 18, 2012 8:27 AM writes...

Derek - I liked the Slate article. But for me, it skirts around the main point, which is we need more opportunities for good scientists. Within that swathe of laid off chemists are some truly great scientists who, through fault of timing alone, are probably unemployable in the field now. Having more great scientists is not enough.

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4. bhip on June 18, 2012 8:40 AM writes...

Derek- Thank you for your article/rebuttal in Slate. However, following up on the comments by BioBritSD, I would quarrel with the statements that “… it is a truly awful time to be an average, undistinguished drug-company researcher” & “Mediocre scientists are in a terrible position these days. If you’re going to be worth your salary, you have to have more to offer”. I think that everyone in the industry has seen excellent, distinguished scientists lose their jobs because of what they work on and/or where they are located. The old days in which performance was the primary factor in maintaining employment are long over (as evidence, please see terminations at Schmerk over the last 4 years or so…).

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5. Watson on June 18, 2012 8:50 AM writes...

This came out just this past Thursday:

NIH Panel Urges Steps to Control Growth in Biomedical Research Trainees

http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/06/nih-panel-urges-steps-to-control.html

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6. Rick Wobbe on June 18, 2012 8:54 AM writes...

BioBritSd, #3, I do not disagree with your point, we do need more opportunities (part of the reason I switched to teaching high school was I gave up on "opportunities"). However, I think your comment begs the question. HOW can these opportunities be created? The simple solution posed in the Slate article seems to be "make more scientists", which we've already bashed here. What else should be done?

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7. anon the II on June 18, 2012 9:05 AM writes...

The Slate article was cause for concern, but so is the recent article in C&E News:

Closing The Skills Gap
Biotech jobs are going begging because new Ph.D.s lack the industry experience that companies want

It's beyond bizarre. Companies want new graduates with substantial industrial experience. Why not hire people with substantial industrial experience?

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8. Shonkin on June 18, 2012 9:19 AM writes...

An academic-oriented Ph.D. program does little to prepare the newly minted doctor for an industrial job. There are ways to improve on this. Two possible remedies for the problem discussed in the C&EN article come to mind.
(1) Industrial summer intern jobs like the ones engineering undergraduates commonly have. The intern makes a bit of money and gets experience in an industrial R&D environment.
(2) Industry-oriented graduate programs like the D. Chem. that the University of Texas at Dallas has had for 20+ years.

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9. Shonkin on June 18, 2012 9:20 AM writes...

An academic-oriented Ph.D. program does little to prepare the newly minted doctor for an industrial job. There are ways to improve on this. Two possible remedies for the problem discussed in the C&EN article come to mind.
(1) Industrial summer intern jobs like the ones engineering undergraduates commonly have. The intern makes a bit of money and gets experience in an industrial R&D environment.
(2) Industry-oriented graduate programs like the D. Chem. that the University of Texas at Dallas has had for 20+ years.

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10. watcher on June 18, 2012 9:37 AM writes...

#7, Anon: Simple. They will have too many opinions that might conflict with management, and they presumably cost too much than new grads.

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11. Hap on June 18, 2012 9:39 AM writes...

7: If they wanted to pay for experience, they wouldn't be looking to hire new graduates - they want someone else to train their employees and don't really want to pay what an experienced person might expect (either now or in the future).

8: Grad students don't have summers off, generally, so that getting industrial experience would either have to replace some of their thesis work or would require lengthening the already long degree time (5+ years for an organic/biological chemistry Ph.D.). I also wonder whether a specifically industrially-oriented Ph.D. would be general enough to allow someone to stay employed. Finally, if the flexibility to do independent research is not valued, what is the point of a Ph.D.?

If you have an economy predicated on eating the seed corn, I don't think that a good business model exists that will enable farmers (or anyone else) to make a living for very long.

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12. p on June 18, 2012 9:40 AM writes...

I think your first point (that I saw anyway) had it right: we need more science and engineering. All of us have a laundry list of probably doable things that could be done with the people we have now if only time and money were given to them/the project.

However, churning out loads of people with degrees only to lay them off or underwork them or encourage them to go do jobs outside science won't get any of those projects done.

So, I think there are two answers to "Do we need more scientists and engineers?" and which one is right depends on the answer to the question "Are we going to make science and engineering a high priority in both the public and private sector?"


On the issue of industry wanting graduates with more industrial experience; back when the US was the unquestioned leader of R&D and manufacturing, our graduates seemed to be good enough. Perhaps we need our industry to stop being run the way they've been run the last 10 years?

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13. dearieme on June 18, 2012 9:47 AM writes...

Your mistake, chaps, is to take that sort of statement at face value, as if it's worth a rational reply. It's part a quasi-religious statement (justified by faith rather than evidence), partly a "look at me, don't I think righteous thoughts" sort of thing. People have been saying that Britain Needs More Scientists since (at least) the late fifties, but the glory days for jobs ended with the sixties. That doesn't stop people repeating it. Meantime Physics department after Physics department has closed in the British universities in response to reality.

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14. Sue Denim on June 18, 2012 10:08 AM writes...

Perhaps we need our industry to stop being run the way they've been run the last 10 years?

While I don't think our industry (if our industry is drug discovery, which I think is true for many of us here) is blameless, the problem of unemployed and underemployed scientists extends far beyond drug discovery. Therefore, I don't believe this is the critical issue.

Frankly, I think one of the biggest problems is that the vast majority of the people who have the ability to enact real change have a very poor understanding of science and often fail to grasp the long term implications of the laws that they create. I would venture to bet that most U.S. lawmakers couldn't pass a standardized college final exam in chemistry or physics, and yet they're passing laws about funding science at all levels and making policies that impact industry.

To bring it back to "our industry," perfect examples include the Hatch-Waxman Act. In their zeal to bring cheaper drugs to the market faster, Congress has created a system that effectively encourages companies to wait for somebody to assume all the risk of drug discovery and then be the first to break their patent. And then we have the audacity to be shocked when other countries don't respect intellectual property rights?

It's fine and dandy to blame the "evil pharmaceutical companies" for profiteering, but they're essentially in a no-win situation. Taking on more risky drug discovery efforts has limited rewards because of the push for generics, but they can't simply bleed money. It's funny that we bemoan their search for cheaper labor but don't look at the reason WHY they have to search for that cheaper labor...

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15. p on June 18, 2012 10:18 AM writes...

Sue, by no means did I mean only pharma.

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16. Rick Wobbe on June 18, 2012 10:28 AM writes...

Sue, I'm totally with you up til the first sentence of the last paragraph. When Pharma wallowed so deeply into lobbying, it became part of the problem.

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17. Anon on June 18, 2012 10:34 AM writes...

Please also see:
acd.od.nih.gov/bwf.htm
and
report.nih.gov/investigators_and_trainees/ACD_BWF/index.aspx

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18. Sue Denim on June 18, 2012 10:41 AM writes...

p, my mistake then. That was the way I read it, and unfortunately I think many people DO feel that way.

Rick, like I said in my first sentence, I don't think pharma is blameless. I just think too many people point their fingers at pharma exclusively for every problem that comes along. Otherwise ambulance chasers wouldn't create things like 1-800-BAD-DRUG.

And, as I said, it's not just pharma. See, for example, Kodak.

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19. simpl on June 18, 2012 10:47 AM writes...

I suggested already last time that there is value in a science education, even if opportunity afterwards pulls in another direction. A further point I was reminded of today* is that achievers seemed to move on early to something useful: Frederic-Caesar La Harpe switched from science, becoming a doctor at law 1n 1774 at he age of 20. He then tutored the Romanov princes Alexander and Constantin. Nowadays, you could get accustomed to a long wait for such an opportunity.
* One of 35 biographies in Inter Gentes - Statesmen, Diplomats, Political Thinkers ISBN 2-88474-667-0

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20. heretic on June 18, 2012 10:59 AM writes...

we value DTC and the payback over the short term versus the long term hi-risk hi-reward for a NCE. how is number of compounds made/HTS etc comparable to shots on goal.... a meaningful relationship? we need good scientists led by good managers...these are very few

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21. Rick Wobbe on June 18, 2012 11:06 AM writes...

Sue, I wouldn't necessarily disagree with your first sentence so much as I would advocate for a different way of looking at the situation. Parsing the blame for any of the problems in health care, however accurately, has unintentionally created a haven for all the guilty, i.e. "don't yell at me, look at what those other people are doing". The current situation requires the support and participation of many parties (politicians, educators, Pharma, insurance companies, to name a few) and if you subtracted any one of them, the structure creating the problems would unravel. In the sense that each of the major stakeholders has the power, individually, to affect radical change by withdrawing support for the status quo, I think it's time to hold them, individually, fully, rather than proportionately, to account. This seems fair if, as usual, we let whoever breaks ranks first take all the credit.

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22. Doug Steinman on June 18, 2012 11:35 AM writes...

Drug discovery is a long and expensive process and the scientists who work in that field are perceived by upper management to be nothing more than a drain on company resources. The effectiveness of those scientists depends to a small degree on their educational training and to a much larger degree on the management of their research efforts. In all of my years in the pharmaceutical industry, I saw very few competent research managers. They were either too afraid for their jobs to contradict stupid decisions by their managers or they were so focused on meeting nebulous goals that the research efforts of the scientists they managed were wasted. The question of too many or too few or superior or mediocre scientists in the pharmaceutical industry will be irrelevant until the companies embrace the idea that they need to either commit to spending a great deal of money on research that might not ever yield a marketable product or they get out of drug discovery entirely and purchase their clinical candidates from outside sources.

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23. Shonkin on June 18, 2012 11:39 AM writes...

Hap: I said "undergraduates", not "graduate students." Undergrads do have summers off.

The best industrial scientists do "independent research," subject to the same litations as academic scientists, i.e., funding. The main differences are that they are expected to get results eventually, and that they probably publish patents more often than scholarly papers.

The UTD D.Chem. program is for employed industrial chemists who are able to submit their researtch at their places of employment for dissertations. A lot of industrial employers don't allow this because of trade-secret policies. Obviously there is still a need for a graduate program that can accommodate recently graduated chemists who want to work in industry.

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24. Hap on June 18, 2012 12:08 PM writes...

23: Sorry. Industrial experience would be helpful at the undergrad level, although, given the outsourcing of the chemistry they could do, it seems nontrivial. It would have helped me.

It's been noted that pharma's problems started with a lack of productivity - the lack of ability to generate enough money to cover research costs. I wonder, though, if the problem might be stated another way.

Pharma made reasonable money for a long time, and produced useful things. However, people (either within or without pharma) decided its productivity needed to be increased. If you have a pot of money, and you need to generate more money than the principal earns, and you don't have another source of income, you have to spend the principal itself. Once that happens, you can't earn even as much as you had earned before unless you find some other source of cash (DTC - monetizing your reputation, essentially) or unless you can make money on riskier investments which can gain greater yields.

If these strategies fail, one wouldn't be wrong to say that there isn't enough productivity to sustain the system, but it would probably be of secondary importance. The real failure would have been the decision to earn unsustainable levels of revenue from your business. You can only grow so much crops from a field - if you try to grow more than it can reasonably sustain, the field won't be good for anything, at least for a while (hence fallow), and maybe (as in the Dust Bowl) for a very long time.

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25. SteveM on June 18, 2012 12:20 PM writes...

As an aside, if there are localized shortages of some kinds of technologists, you'd think that the government would put in place programs to retrain proven American born intellectual talent. E.g., transition shut out Chemists to Computer Science or Medicine rather than rely on blanket fire hose immigration from Asia like Romney and Obama espouse.

With the displaced American technologists still pounding the pavement...

P.S. this is a prime example of how truly atrocious and clueless Power Elites like Romney and Obama really are.

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26. Mitchell Thomas on June 18, 2012 1:03 PM writes...

If we agree that advancement of science and technology has broad societal benefits that are generally worth the investment, let's think for a minute about what having more scientists (whether brilliant, middling, or mediocre) means. Labor is expensive, and with greater labor supply its cost goes down. Yes that means lower salaries for scientists and engineers, but it also means the cost of that input goes down. Therefore research projects "on the fence" (barely NPV negative, in corporate finance terms) become worthwhile to pursue (NPV positive). More projects become worth pursuing, technology advances at a faster pace, and society benefits.

We should keep in mind unemployment rates for scientists and engineers are still relatively low compared to the rest of the population. Plenty of mediocre scientists are among the employed. So society has found NPV positive uses for mediocre scientists. If they were even cheaper (due to more supply) more projects would be undertaken and the rate of scientific discovery should increase.

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27. heretic on June 18, 2012 2:01 PM writes...

#26 whether brilliant, middling, or mediocre? where does overhead fit into this? is one brilliant worth 2 middling? and how would you determine the performance to make that determination? I have seen people moved from one group to another and blossom as well as not. and there are individuals who when they go into industry the first priority is to get out of lab and become the supervisor ASAP. gantt charts rule!

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28. Tina848 on June 18, 2012 3:24 PM writes...

Scientists have changed in the 20 years since I graduated. I am one who left the field, but still interacts with researchers. I find many of the researchers are great with theoretic arguments, but have difficulties with the practical side - instrumentation, analysis, and conclusions. I do not think it is an issue with too few grads and VISA holders (many where I work are from outside the US originally), but not having people who can grasp the concept of going from pure theoretical research to an applied product.

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29. Tina848 on June 18, 2012 3:25 PM writes...

Scientists have changed in the 20 years since I graduated. I am one who left the field, but still interacts with researchers. I find many of the researchers are great with theoretic arguments, but have difficulties with the practical side - instrumentation, analysis, and conclusions. I do not think it is an issue with too few grads and VISA holders (many where I work are from outside the US originally), but not having people who can grasp the concept of going from pure theoretical research to an applied product.

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30. milkshake on June 19, 2012 1:38 AM writes...

"we need more (cheap) scientists" is a pretty self-serving blah. If government thinks we are lagging behind in technology and that we should create more science-related jobs, maybe it should try to make it easier to obtain funding for technology start-up companies... I don't propose anything crazy (and I am quite opposed to plain handouts) - but maybe a partial loan guarantee like 40% guarantee on a loan up to 5 mills USD, to help small companies get of the ground, would not be too expensive. The fact is, there is lot of inexpensive lab spaces for rent these days and deeply discounted used instruments to be had due to so many pharma site closures. But it is extremely hard to secure financing when you are a small biotech startup.

When you talk to VCs, they want to see at least a drug in phase II, or they will demand insane preconditions that will get them paid before anybody else, and they will try to hype and squeeze out your company and cash out and let it drop dead at the first opportunity. They are able to play this unethical game because there are not many funding opportunities available, and struggling small companies are desperate for a lifeline. So having more funding options available would improve the employment situation in biotech, lost due to big pharma contraction, and maybe would help to bring in some innovation too.

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31. emjeff on June 19, 2012 7:39 AM writes...

#30 - you are onto something here, but you are wide of the target about who should be doing what. The only thing government should be doing is getting the hell out of the way.Sensible regulation (particularly in CMC and clinical) would go a long way toward making this industry profitable again, and then the employment issues would take care of themselves. If you think that some federal program, presided over by bureaucrats, is the magic bullet, you are barking up the wrong tree...

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32. Aspirin on June 19, 2012 9:37 AM writes...

31: Federal programs may be less than efficient, but they are still better than nothing, which tends to be the case these days.

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33. g on June 19, 2012 10:56 AM writes...

The biggest reason that the "we need more scientists!" idea is unrealistic is funding, logistics, and expertise. Science is really complicated and expensive.

For example, designing apps for a smartphone, is not an easy thing, but compared to a lot of high-tech fields, it is child's play. If you have the skills, a couple of people can design a pretty good app in their basement with tens of thousands of dollars (I am guessing here). You cannot discover a new drug in your basement. A single person cannot discovery a new drug. There are too many things involved. Plus, you need $ tens of millions just to get a reasonable compound that you can go test in people.

Some fields of science are really complicated and require vast amounts of funding and expertise. If the funding isn't there, it isn't going to happen no matter how many mediocre scientists that you throw at the problem.

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34. g on June 19, 2012 11:16 AM writes...

The biggest reason that the "we need more scientists!" idea is unrealistic is funding, logistics, and expertise. Science is really complicated and expensive.

For example, designing apps for a smartphone, is not an easy thing, but compared to a lot of high-tech fields, it is child's play. If you have the skills, a couple of people can design a pretty good app in their basement with tens of thousands of dollars (I am guessing here). You cannot discover a new drug in your basement. A single person cannot discovery a new drug. There are too many things involved. Plus, you need $ tens of millions just to get a reasonable compound that you can go test in people.

Some fields of science are really complicated and require vast amounts of funding and expertise. If the funding isn't there, it isn't going to happen no matter how many mediocre scientists that you throw at the problem.

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35. anon on June 19, 2012 2:58 PM writes...

Apparently we already have "more scientists" right now:

http://www.nature.com/news/a-workforce-out-of-balance-1.10852

Just look at the graph showing DRASTIC INCREASE in the number of basic biomedical PhDs awarded in the recent past compared to 20 or 30 years ago.

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36. biosci on June 19, 2012 3:02 PM writes...

I think the issue is pretty simple. Employers (industry management, academic professors) always want cheap labor and lots of it.

Laborers (scientists, in this case) want better wages. A greater supply of labor relative to demand, as we have now, depresses wages.

So the great and good of industry and academia will always complain about not having enough cheap labor, and will favor arguments that "society needs more scientists", even if they cannot possibly find work as scientists. I remember an IT venture capitalist I know complain once that "programmers are expensive!". I can't remember what I said, but I think the only appropriate reply would have been "Well, shouldn't they be?".

Since the great and good have more political clout than the working scientists, we get the current situation, where I'd say it's clear that most scientific fields in the US are oversubscribed. And if the economists are correct about human motivation, we should expect to see the average quality of scientists in the US slowly decline as some of the best and most versatile are attracted to other fields.

As far as good vs mediocre scientist goes, I think one of the problems is that scientists are hard to assess, especially in an failure-prone field like drug development. There are probably mediocre industry scientists with marketed drugs to their names, and lots of brilliant scientists with none. How do you tell them apart, especially en masse?

If you think we need more good/great scientists, you have to resign yourself to training a lot of mediocre ones as well. And that's not such a bad thing; in many fields, there's a lot of scut work to be done.

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37. biosci on June 19, 2012 3:21 PM writes...

@22. Doug Steinman:
I couldn't agree more.

@26. Mitchell Thomas:
I agree that in principle, lowering the cost of one of the factors of production is likely to result in more production.

But I think you are making two errors. The first is that scientists are a commodity, and cheaper is unambiguously better. In fact, if you make a scientific career less attractive, you're likely to get worse scientists as some candidates choose other careers.

Also, I think you're wrong in believing that the cost of scientific labor is anywhere near one of the most important costs in deciding the fate of R&D projects. I think that the scientific illiteracy and short-term thinking of management plays a much larger role. I also suspect that other costs of research are at least as significant as labor.

What to do about this? I think we need to make outsourcing less attractive. Lower labor costs overseas are a driver, of course. But I believe that they are also driven by ignorant, short-term thinking by management as well as by a number of practices of some foreign governments that make trade significantly less than truly free.

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38. Engineer on June 25, 2012 11:33 PM writes...

Why wouldn't you want more STEM personnel?

Is there any other set of careers that contributes more to the workings of a first world economy?

Is there any other set of careers that correlates more highly to a high GDP per capita (in large countries)?

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