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November 15, 2005

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Don't miss the brief synopsis of the last 50 years in math education at the end of the "new math" link.

This is good politics, because I think lots of people who aren't scientists still view what's happening with the administration and the fundies as a demeaning of science in deference to the religious right. But at the risk of being a killjoy, I do want to point out that it's not all hunky dory for newly graduated scientists and engineers, and certainly not for mid-career scientists and engineers who often find themselves stuck in the career path or worse. As many research and development jobs are farmed out to China and especially to India, where highly skilled scientists, engineers and computer experts can be paid a relative pittance, unless we create new opportunities for those Americans trained and educated in what are still generally outstanding university programs, we'll just end up with a lot of underemployed engineers and scientists.

What Pelosi and the Dems are proposing is great. But it's only one part of the formula. I suspect they know that, but it's something that we're going to have to deal with over the next couple decades.

That new math link is pretty funny... and illustrative, as I try to help my high schoolers with their math. Parents hate not understanding the homework, trust me.

Bonus points for anyone citing Tom Lehrer.

Never make people feel stupid if you want their votes.

We also need to do a better job of keeping the best and brightest from other countries here. Higher ed just had a record decline in new foreign student enrollments.

Believe it or not, BCIS (the new INS) is improving. Really. No, I mean that. While it took mr. emptywheel longer to get his temporary green card than it took me to get Irish citizenship (go me!), they have now instituted an appointment system (believe me, this is huge--it often took several hours to get a hearing before, and some people have to drive from N Michigan to get there, so people who don't paid if they don't work were taking a day over and over again to try to keep their papers in order. Or my cousin's husband, who got stuck in the all-day lines in sub-zero weather when it came time to register as resident from a dangerous country.) And while they told mr. emptywheel it might take a year to receive his permanent green card, it only took two weeks.

I've seen more improvement in that bureaucratic mess in the last two years than I've ever seen in a government agency. Now, if they can just do the same with the student visa program, maybe we won't disappear into academic oblivion.

I don't know how many scientists will be "produced" over the next four years without extra effort, and I would like to see those figures, but I like the optimistic, can-do spirit of Pelosi's sci-tech proposal. Something we can all get behind.

But Democratic leaders' gradual adoption of the "energy independence in 10 years" theme is a mistake.

In its place, they should set specific goals - milestones, if you will - for five years, 10 years, 15 years into the future. Replacing 12 million daily barrels of imported oil a year within 10 years is a far more difficult a task than was getting to the moon in (less than) a decade. It means massive conservation, replacing the world's largest infrastructure, a major reworking of hundreds of cities, remaking transportation systems and recreating the whole way society now operates in the energy sphere.

Of course, we must, in the long run, do all that and more. But anyone who thinks this can be done in 10 years should take a close look at the Danish model - the most aggressive independence-renewable energy plan on the planet. By 2015, they'll have been at it for 35 years, and they'll not have reached halfway to their goal. Indeed, they won't be halfway by 2030. Does anyone think the U.S. can outdo what they've done and plan to do in a mere decade? I'm all for setting forth a daunting challenge, but not fantasy goals.

I don't know how many scientists will be "produced" over the next four years without extra effort, and I would like to see those figures, but I like the optimistic, can-do spirit of Pelosi's sci-tech proposal. Something we can all get behind.

But Democratic leaders' gradual adoption of the "energy independence in 10 years" theme is a mistake.

In its place, they should set specific goals - milestones, if you will - for five years, 10 years, 15 years into the future. Replacing 12 million daily barrels of imported oil a year within 10 years is a far more difficult a task than was getting to the moon in (less than) a decade. It means massive conservation, replacing the world's largest infrastructure, a major reworking of hundreds of cities, remaking transportation systems and recreating the whole way society now operates in the energy sphere.

Of course, we must, in the long run, do all that and more. But anyone who thinks this can be done in 10 years should take a close look at the Danish model - the most aggressive independence-renewable energy plan on the planet. By 2015, they'll have been at it for 35 years, and they'll not have reached halfway to their goal. Indeed, they won't be halfway by 2030. Does anyone think the U.S. can outdo what they've done and plan to do in a mere decade? I'm all for setting forth a daunting challenge, but not fantasy goals.

unless we create new opportunities for those Americans trained and educated in what are still generally outstanding university programs, we'll just end up with a lot of underemployed engineers and scientists.

so this is a topic I have a very personal vested interest in. There is already a glut of PhDs, at least in the biological sciences, compared to the number of pure research jobs available.

There are two or three ways people have tried to deal with this.

1., is to create more academic research positions.
2., or possibly an offshoot of 1., is to create more private industry research positions.
3., is to appreciate that training in science is above all training in a method of thought, and that therefore it's handy to have scientists in positions of power in policy-making (of all kinds), and so to create non-research positions for scientists to go into.

To take #3 to the extreme: a lot of "underemployed" scientists may be a great boon to our national infrastructure (has anyone else noticed that nothing really WORKS right anymore?) -- I wouldn't mind having someone grossly overqualified for the job running a small department in my city, my utility company, even my grocery store. But of course I wouldn't want to be that person either.

We graduated 70,000 engineers last year, while China, with a population about 4.4 times ours, granduated 10 times as many. I assume there are fewer scientists and even fewer mathematicians. Pelosi's proposal would boost the aggregate number by 100,000 over four years.

More money for research would create more jobs, as would a program that underwrites scientists spending a couple of years teaching high school. And, as emptypockets said, we could benefit from having people with scientific training in a variety of positions that are not strictly speaking science.

Meteor Blades makes a good point about the "energy independence in 10 years" being illusory, and I have misgivings about it, having seen what happened to our goals of achieving clean water in a similar period in the Clean Water Act.

But still. A shift in incentives in this country could make a big difference, and if the Saudis are mistaken about their reserves, we may be forced in that direction sooner than later. Given the pressures that will cause any specifric legislative goals to be scaled back significantly, 10 years might be seen as a viable starting point, while what Meteor suggests is a reasonable end point for legislation.

But as a caveat, recent experience suggests policy makers are better off being reasonably honest from the get-go about both goals and costs if they want people to support a program that will entail sacrifice. That is a lesson the Dems should consider well in developing their proposals.

I've been thinking more about this thread, and my previous comment. I think I missed the big picture Mimikatz is showing us. Specifics of the policies aside, staking out our turf as she says on science is absolutely a winner. In the big picture view, science as an enterprise is well into a golden age right now. New technology in computing, microscale synthesis, microanalysis and micro-imaging have made experiments possible -- in fact, routine! -- that would have taken heroic efforts just 15 years ago. It is a time that is full of both promise and progress. The closer and tighter Dems hitch their wagons to it, the better.

There are significant policy details to hash out but we may be on the way to a level of government-sponsorship of research, as Mimikatz points out, that we hadn't seen since that last great political battle, the Cold War. Political impulses act as a lens to magnify whatever general public interest in science already exists. Most of science funding in the last 10-20 years has been driven by public interest, with the political lens having very little power (there was no strong governmental interest). If that lens starts picking up magnifying power again, this time as a political tool, funding really could skyrocket. One real caution is that if this Dem v. Rep rift on science is short-lived, funding could plummet again, and that kind of volatility is not good for anything -- arguably worse than a slow steady drip. So a major question is whether the Dems will retain this interest in science when (yes, when) they are back in power and everything is hunky-dory again.

Americans love the whole "Keep America #1" thing. Americans feel like the country is going in the wrong direction. Polls have the wrong track numbers in the high 60s to low 70s. This is a way of tapping into that dissatisfaction while providing a reason for Democrats' support for stem cell research and alternative fuels. It's sort of tapping into that "Morning in America" vibe that Americans gravitate towards, and a sense of "things suck and this is how we'll turn things around."

Wrote more about it here: Congressional Dems are Working to Take Control of the Debate

We graduated 70,000 engineers last year, while China, with a population about 4.4 times ours, granduated 10 times as many. I assume there are fewer scientists and even fewer mathematicians.
One comment about those numbers: quality is not the same as quantity, particularly in terms of research. In my experience it's extraordinarily difficult to get people to do original, meaningful research (as opposed to cranking out tons of papers with minor incremental results). There are a lot of intangible things that contribute to this, such as academic honesty, freedom of inquiry, collaboration, etc. Although many countries have fast-growing scientific communities, it takes longer for them to acquire these traits and become really productive (though the trend is clearly in their favor).

Re: emptypockets' comment on creating more jobs for people with scientific training, I think that's a good idea (and not just because I'll be looking for a job soon). Many companies aren't investing enough in long-term research, because of an emphasis on short-term profits. Creating more non-research jobs is a good idea too. It would make graduate school attractive to a broader range of people. Right now, I think many people don't want a PhD because they feel that it limits their career options.

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