The View From 1776

Scientific Research: Maybe it is Salaries

Reader Frank Madarasz provides more insights into the problem confronting the United States.

I read your article “Outsourcing, Immigration, and Education” with great interest and always appreciate your point-of-view and presentation.? I agree with your premise that our educational system, especially K-12, is responsible for turning out substandard students, relative to many other countries, has had and is having deleterious effects on the nation as a whole.? However, I am at odds with some of the material you report.? My response, not necessarily in the order in which the material appears in your write up, is given below.

Sometime ago you posted an extended email exchangeof mine with Dr. Paul Chiu on the topic of research in the U.S. since WW II.? In that exchange I made it clear that since universities overbuilt themselves in the 60s on government demand and funding, engineering and science colleges are now struggling to stay afloat by bringing in foreign students.? The problem is that for the most part we no longer get ‘the cream of the crop,’ but the rejects, from India, China, Korea, and literally none from Taiwan or Japan.? The good ones stay home where high caliber education and jobs are available.? The students (rejects) that come and stay here will be our next generation of technical leaders by default.

The reason many U.S. students are opting out of engineering and the science is that there are scant few jobs doing ‘real’ engineering and science, and the starting pay is considerably less than what a BS in marketing or business gets, fields that take considerably less effort to get a degree in.? When you get into the graduate ranks there is even more of a pay discrepancy.? (I worked with a 100 Ph.D.s in science and mathematics at Bell Labs in the late 1970s all doing economic and business analysis for AT&T and the Bell system.? Bell would not hire business or economics majors to do this work since they did not have the analytical and mathematical skills of the scientists and mathematicians.? I, with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, made a starting salary of? $26K/year, which was about $10K more than my colleagues got who stayed in science and could get a job.? However, MBAs were, at that time, receiving starting salaries of $40K - $45K/year.)? Those jobs that are available are heavily weighted toward minority hires, especially in U.S. universities.? (Scientific research in the US has been on the decline for some years.? In private industry most died off in the 70s and the last bastions of ‘real’ R&D in industry, Bell Labs and IBM, were killed off in the 80s.)? Nevertheless, the production of bachelor engineering and science degrees in the U.S. is still a higher density of population than India and China:? U.S. 757/million; India 199/million; and China 497/million.? (Source: Duke University School of Engineering.? Note that when China reports degrees in engineering it lumps in mechanics, technicians and other technical positions.? The number presented here is corrected for this over count.)

The National Science Foundation, made up of mostly academics, and which has been found to be wrong in their statistical reporting on several previous occasions, has been crying wolf on science and engineering for decades.? This is simply because it is in their own interest to keep the over abundance of universities populated with students justifying the existence of in place science and engineering programs.? Presently, this country does NOT have a critical shortage of engineers and scientists. ?

We literally now have tens of thousands of technical people out of work (including myself for over 1 ? years) or underemployed and our Congress is poised to issue another 30,000 H-1B visas to bring foreign technical people here.? ?Ignoring this situation some in Congress, and now some economic pundits, are advocating that we put more money into universities to produce more engineers and scientists.? What seems to elude these people is the need to create more technical jobs, without insourcing, and the rest will take care of itself.? And, I respectfully disagree with you, but economics is indeed the root cause.? If I recall correctly, people brought in on H-1B visas are brought in by a company and are bound to the employment of that company for the length of visa.? Their salary is also set by the company and is generally below U.S. market wage because it is based on the country of origin in which employment took place.? They do get cost of living adjustments but the basic salary is far below what U.S. engineers and scientists would be getting.

Indeed, the quality of the research coming out of India, China, Korea, Taiwan and Japan has been growing in quality and quantity in the last decade or so as witnessed by the number and quality of research papers from those countries appearing in referred journals.? The Bush administration’s response of throwing more money at R&D is ill conceived and window dressing to a problem that most politicians just do not quite understand.? As I understand it, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and many DoD funding agencies, such as DARPA, AFOSR, ONR and ARO will be responsible for the distribution of these new monies.? First and foremost this means proposal writing, which in turn means that for every $100K of grant or contact money awarded there will be several hundreds of thousands spent in time and resources writing multiple proposals that are rejected.? It also means that a good portion of the funding will go to premier universities and perceived premier R&D companies.? It also means that 20% of all funding will be set asides for minority companies and historically black universities, that is, awarded on the basis of status, not necessarily demonstrated research competence.? And finally, with the exception of the NSF, research topics are set by the funding agencies in accord with DoD needs and are usually more of a forced technology development nature than research, which naturally drives technological evolution.? Moreover, these topics change ever several years making it difficult to develop any substantial expertise in a field essentially for doing quality research.

The bottom line is that we as country have little appreciation, no less understanding, of the critical issues associated with research and its importance to long term technological/economic development.? Policies by politicians only tend to confuse the situation even more as they do with most things.

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