Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Dismal Prospects for Scientific Employment

One of the most depressing articles I’ve ever read in my entire life describes the problem American students face when pondering a career in science. For years, the conventional wisdom was that our education system was failing to properly educate our children in STEM subjects (science, tech, engineering, and math). However, this article in Miller-McCune directly challenges this assumption.

The authors contend that the real problem facing American students is a lack of careers in science. The case they make is compelling: Although the number of graduates receiving Ph.D.’s has increased, the number of job opportunities has not kept pace. This trend is particularly noticeable in academia, where young Ph.D.’s spend years as post-docs, with only a small chance of ever landing a permanent position as a professor. Indeed, the average age of a scientist who earns his first independent NIH grant– a huge milestone in the medical science field– has risen from a researcher’s late 20s/early 30s to the ripe old age of 42.

One of the biggest causes indicated in this article is the flood of foreigners who are willing to take post-doc positions. It doesn’t take an economist to realize that a massive increase in labor supply will both eat up opportunities and drive down salaries. Post-doc positions, which were once viewed as prestigious, are now treated as temporary, cheap labor. With such a dismal prospect for career advancement and compensation, it’s no wonder that American students would rather get an MBA or MD… or to forgo higher education altogether.

Monday, March 29, 2010

National Biometric Identification Card

Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are working together to create a national identification card with biometric technology. The purpose of the card will be to curb illegal immigration. Because all citizens will be required to carry one, employers will have no excuse to hire illegal immigrants.

Predictably, privacy advocates are already up in arms over the proposal. According to the article (see link above), one of the major objections is that the government will be able to track citizens. However, this concern makes little sense in today’s digitized world. If you use a credit card, debit card, or cell phone, the government can already track you wherever you go.

The biometric data, undoubtedly, will also cause a stir. Early indications about the bill (which is still being developed in the Senate) seem to show that the biometric data will either be a fingerprint or a scan of the veins on the back of one’s hand. I assume that if DNA was the biometric of choice, this issue would go from controversial to downright explosive. Fortunately, that probably won’t be the case.

In an age of globalization and terrorism, it may be time for the United States to implement a national ID card. At the very least, it’s time to have this discussion. Hopefully it goes better than the health care discussion.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rhode Island High School Fires All of its Teachers

In a bold move, Superintendent Frances Gallo fired every single teacher from Central Falls High School, one of the worst-performing schools in the state. Gallo had offered the teachers a plan to improve school performance, which included a 25-minute longer school day, increased tutoring, eating lunch with the students, and a summer training course. The school offered the teachers an additional $30 per hour for the additional work.

The teachers' union rejected the plan because they wanted $90 per hour. So Gallo fired all of them. (It should also be pointed out that R.I. teachers' average salary is already higher than the national average.) US Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded the superintendent.

So do I. This story represents yet more evidence that teachers' unions are destroying education in America. It's about time somebody stood up to them.

While not directly related to the theme of this blog (politicization of science), this story illustrates that science education in America is affected by teachers' unions. If students are failing, the teachers need to be held accountable.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

China is Likely to Overtake the US in Scientific Research

The writing is on the wall. China will overtake the US in scientific output in the near future. A couple reports make this conclusion almost inevitable.

First, a recent post on the blog of the internationally renowned journal Science indicates the rise of China in scientific productivity. For instance, China ranks second only to the US in number of journal publications. Also, China is increasing its investment in science education and research. Additionally, for many scientific indicators, "the slope of the line is accelerating rather than decelerating."

Secondly, American education is mediocre, at best. In a 2006 study of several different countries and economic areas conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), US students consistently ranked "below average" for proficiency in math and science. The US ranked 18th in science and 24th in math out of 30 (OECD) countries. In math, the US was not only outperformed by Japan and Germany, but it was also (embarrassingly) outperformed by former communist countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Czech Republic. When economic areas (such as Taipei or Hong Kong) were included, the US fared even worse. (The 56-page executive summary can be found here.)

Finally, it should be pointed out that countries that outperformed the US in education often spent less money on it. For instance, as a percentage of GDP, the US (5.7%) outspent Poland (5.6%), Hungary (5.5%), Germany (4.6%), and Japan (3.6%).

What does it all mean? It's pretty straightforward: With US students falling behind much of the westernized world in math and science proficiency, it is only a matter of time before China will overtake us as the global leader in science and technology. However, this could probably be prevented if we fix our decidedly mediocre K-12 education system. Reforming the quality of our education is the key to the solution. Throwing more money at the problem is certainly not.