Positive Feedback Gone Awry

June 28th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Last week, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released a report entitled United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities (available here). The report, authored by George Abbey, former director of the Johnson Space Center, and Neal Lane, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, identified four barriers to the future development of U.S. space science. According to the authors, the second of these barriers is a “projected shortfall in the U.S. science and engineering workforce.” The report utilizes data from the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators (here). and from the National Science Foundation to point to recent declines in the numbers of U.S. physics Ph.D.s, growth in science and engineering-related jobs, and increased competition for foreign scientists. The report characterizes the future prospects for science and engineering in America as a “looming shortage”, and a “crisis” because of the projected shortfalls in manpower. Roger has already written a couple posts (“Scientist Shortage”, and “Scientific Workforce, Supply Side”) on this subject that provide reason for skepticism in the face of claims of impending shortage.

Additionally, the authors of the report write in their recommendations for a healthy workforce, “Beyond all these, the most important requirement is probably a truly exciting national vision, laid out by the leaders of this country, that offers young people the opportunity for adventure that first inspired Americans to build a great nation. Space should play a large role in this national vision, just as it did during the Apollo days. If young people see exciting careers ahead in science and engineering, they are likely to pursue them with passion.”

This reasoning seems somewhat circular. The quoted paragraph posits the excitement of space science as a means for motivating young people to pursue careers in science and engineering. So, one barrier to healthy space science is the projected shortage of scientists, and the most significant means of increasing the number of scientists is to promote space science. In other words, we need more scientists and engineers for the future of our space enterprise, and we need an enhanced space enterprise for the future of our scientists and engineers. Apparently, this is a case of positive feedback gone awry.

3 Responses to “Positive Feedback Gone Awry”

  1. G Says:

    You should read things carefully before you blast them on your web page. I’m having a little trouble finding where the circularity of the report is supposed to come from.

    If trends continue as expected by those other organizations, there will be a decline in the number of scientists. A projected shortfall of scientists is bad news for the sciences. Makes sense, right?

    One possible way to help mitigate or reduce this projected decline would be to encourage potential future scientists. One way they thing would be effective is to give space and the space program more attention.

    How is this circular?

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  3. Daniel Collins Says:

    I actually disagree. Vision and imagination are powerful forces in stirring up action, be it by president or by poet. (Incidentally, so is fear.) What was the effect of Kennedy’s statement of reaching the moon by the end of the decade? Did Cold War fears generate more physics interest? I don’t actually know, but I think the catch 22 you see is not really there.

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  5. Nat Logar Says:

    Perhaps the use of the word “circular” was imprecise, although I do believe that this section of the report is weak when you think about justifications. The quoted paragraph says, “Space should play a large role in this national vision,” What is the purpose of giving space, and thus space science, a large role? Increase the science and engineering workforce.

    What is the report’s reason for having a healthy science and engineering workforce? Increase the progress we make in our space enterprise.

    While not precisely circular, the writing does suggest that by enhancing the role of space, we can reach the goal of enhancing the health of the space endeavor. I would say that, to make increased prominence in a “national vision” sense realistic, you would have to both dedicate more verbal attention to space and to spend more money. While the authors do not explicitly say this, I interpret an invocation of the Apollo days as a referral to a time when we rapidly increased spending and verbal commitment to the space enterprise. Part of making young people see exciting careers in space includes paying for exciting careers in space. Thus, the argument of the authors becomes that we should foster a healthy space enterprise by dedicating more resources to the space enterprise. This is probably true. However, this point can be made without pointing to projections of a scientist shortage, which, as I wrote in the post, I’m skeptical about for reasons outlined in the posts I provided links to.

    So, my imprecise use of “circular”, applies to the authors’ assertion that we will need more scientists for a healthier space program, and that we need to promote the health of the space program to get more scientists. Since one justifies the other in the paper, Abbey and Lane bring us to a position where we can continually increase resources to the space program as long as they can make the claim that we will not have enough scientists in the future.