Archive for the ‘Gathering Storm’ Category

Must Everyone in the Lab Have a Ph.D?

March 21st, 2009

Posted by: admin

A proposal for a Research for America found in Olivia Judson’s blog this week essentially asks this question, just not in so many words.  The idea is to have a corp of undergraduate degree holders available to serve a year or two in labs, before going on to graduate study or other endeavors.  For me this gets to a number of related assumptions behind science and engineering graduate education in the U.S. that need some exploring.

The Profzi Scheme This cartoon from PHD Comics describes the pyramid scheme behind graduate education.  There are two few faculty positions for all of the cheap laborers (graduate students) to rise up in this system.  Combine this with the prevailing myth that asexual reproduction is the only post-degree model for graduate education and you have an odd combination – an underproduction of scientists and engineers, but an overproduction of Ph.Ds.  If bachelors degree holders can function in a lab, then the need for bunches of Ph.D. students is in question.


How Think Tanks Use “Sound Science” – Neither Soundly Nor Scientifically

August 30th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Besides an emphasis on climate science policy, Prometheus posts have often wrangled with the common practice of appealing to science (sometimes referred to as “sound science”) as a means to close a policy debate.  There are many problems with such a rhetorical and political strategy, not the least of which is the hiding of debate and differences within this closed box of ‘expertise’ – an area Science and Technology Studies has mined well, and Science and Technology Policy Research could do well to visit that foundry more often.

Think tanks are no stranger to this appeal to authority.  Of course, those with more ideological purposes (Heritage, Center for American Progress, Cato) are easier to spot when they make these appeals as a way to advance their particular agendas.  Those with no apparent ideological axe to grind are harder to sniff out.

Let me present today’s example, from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation – a small think tank that usually does fine with their various economic analyses of IT and innovation related topics.  They have announced an event on September 10 in Washington titled: Is the U.S. Falling Behind in Science and Technology or Not?  The associated press release explains why they ask the question:

Over the last several years a number of reports – headlined by Ris­ing Above the Gathering Storm have raised alarm over the deteriorating state of U.S. science and technology (S&T) competitiveness and documented how the country is falling behind in key building blocks of the S&T base.

Now bursting onto the scene is a new report from the RAND Corporation, U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology, that calls into question what appeared to be settled assessments of slipping U.S. S&T competitiveness. Covered widely in magazines like The Economist (What Crisis? June 12, 2008 issue), RAND’s report has been interpreted by many to suggest that worries about the United States losing its edge in S&T are actually overblown: everything’s just fine

But RAND’s report contains se­rious structural and analytic flaws that misread the fundamental position of U.S. science and technology competitiveness. In a new report, RAND’s Rose-Colored Glasses: How RAND’s Report on U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology Gets it Wrong, ITIF will offer a detailed critique of the RAND report showing that in contrast to RAND’s rosy assessment, America’s lead on a number of key S&T indicators is eroding rapidly, where not vanishing entirely.

I want to be careful here.  The event hasn’t happened yet, but the framing of the discussion is a great example of how a policy debate can easily be hidden away by appeals to sound science, or in the case of this particular event “settled assessments.”

And in the interest of noting where Prometheus stands, we have criticized Rising Above the Gathering Storm (RAGS) to the point where it has its own category.  Both Roger and I have noted the RAND report targeted by ITIF in a favorable light.  It lacks the heated rhetoric and dubious calculations of RAGS, and makes the point that action is necessary, regardless of the state of U.S. competitiveness (something ITIF conveniently ignores).  The notion of steady-state equilibrium in science and technology support should have been discredited once technology was incorporated into economic growth models, but that’s a post for another day, if not another blog.

Scientific consensus does not dictate particular policy actions.  Look at the climate change debates to see proof of this.  The press release is framed in such a way that this ‘bad’ RAND report must be fought, or the policy consensus over improving U.S. competitiveness (such as it is) will fail.  But ITIF won’t fight the report on it’s tone (which appears to be the main source of disagreement), but on supposed flaws in its science.  All the while, flaws in the science of reports supportive of ITIF’s position (the sky is falling, we’re doomed unless science gets more money, you know the drill) is ignored (ITIF isn’t the only one to ignore the flaws, or the related criticism).

There’s a fine line between rhetoric and, well, I’ll call it delusion (Henry Frankfurt has another name for it), and I think this falls on the wrong side.  Instead of picking apart reports read by very few people that matter in competitiveness decisions, political action is better spent persuading the right people that certain programs need full funding.

Too Many Atmospheric Scientists . . . Surprise, Surprise

July 15th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In the current issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society John Knox concludes (PDF):

. . . if the projections are accurate: the number of undergraduate meteorology degree recipients will increasingly exceed the number of meteorology employment opportunities into the next decade. Thus, given recent trends and future projections, the growth of the U.S. undergraduate meteorology population is potentially unsustainable in terms of bachelor’s degree–level employment within meteorology.

With respect to the job market for meteorologists he finds another solid indication of a glut:

Meteorology graduates’ salaries in this national database are much closer to those in the traditionally glutted and underpaid humanities fields than to salaries for graduates with computer science, physics, geology, or mathematics degrees.

Knox indicates that this situation has developed because the atmospheric sciences community has ignored the demand side of the equation when pressing for an ever increasing supply of students, and may foreshadow a similar glut at the graduate level:

the quantitative results of this article can be construed to indicate that we have entered
a period of chronic oversupply of undergraduate meteorologists. This oversupply has arguably come about because the mechanisms that generate interest in our field (e.g., unprecedented media emphasis on weather) are mostly uncoupled to the mechanisms of demand. Media coverage of weather and climate topics can inspire throngs of students to pursue meteorology as a career; it is specifically cited by UNC Charlotte meteorologists as a reason for their program’s spectacular growth (www.charlotte.
com/274/story/103334.html). But widespread media attention does not magically create future employment opportunities for these students within meteorology. If, in turn, this situation translates into a future boom in graduate school enrollments and Ph.D. production, the current parlous state of “grantsmanship” in our science as described by the critiques of Carlson (2006) and Roulston (2006) would seem tame by comparison.

In the same issue, Jeff Rosenfield, Editor-in-Chief of BAMS editorializes (not online, at p. 773) that he was “surprised” by the data. He should not have been. In 2002 I engaged in a series of exchanges on the pages of BAMS on exactly this question in response to a paper by Vali, Anthes, et al. warning of a shortage of PhD atmospheric scientists. They argued that one solution was to boost the undergraduate ranks in the atmospheric sciences:

we as a community should seek ways to increase the number of qualified applicants. Because the number of atmospheric scientists required under any reasonable scenario is small compared to the total number of students in undergraduate education, a modest increase in the effort to recruit students from other disciplines could have a major impact in a relatively short period of time.

In response, I argued that any discussion of a shortfall in supply of atmospheric sciences professionals needed also to be accompanied by some understanding of the market demand for people trained with this expertise, something that Vali , Anthes, et al. neglected to discuss, and Knox identifies as a root factor in the present mismatch of supply and demand. I argued that the atmospheric sciences were risking committing the exact same mistake made by the NSF when it proclaimed a looming shortage of scientists in the 1990s. I concluded:

The science and technology community generally experienced loss of credibility in the 1990s when a number of prominent figures claimed a looming shortage of scientists. Leaders in the atmospheric sciences are in a position to use experience to avoid such errors in future assessments of the labor market. In particular, considerable care must be taken in raising expectations of potential students and policymakers about the future prospects for employment.

In reply, Vali and Anthes dismissed the importance of any consideration of demand, raised the “idealistic” vision of the free pursuit of knowledge, and ended with a jingoistic appeal to the need for more native U.S. scientists. To this I rejoined that there was indeed data available that portended a potential oversupply of atmospheric scientists, and this data was ignored at some risk. No one should be surprised at the current labor market situation for atmospheric scientists.

Now it turns out that the community faces an oversupply of undergraduates, depressed salaries, and a potential loss of credibility. Of course, the entirely predictable next step in this situation will be for the atmospheric sciences community to bemoan the fact that research budgets have not kept pace with the supply of trained atmospheric scientists, and call for an increase in federal R&D to create new opportunities. And in this way, the politics of science funding go round and round.

What U.S Competitiveness Crisis?

July 7th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

For some time we have noted the tendency of some in the S&T community to claim that a crisis exists in United States Competitiveness, with the solution being large and immediate government investments in R&D budgets. Others, including Paul Krugman and Amar Bhidé argue that the notion of “competitiveness” is itself incoherent placing claims of a crisis on dubious claims.

A new report out by The Rand Corporation, titled U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology (PDF), seeks to shed some light on this debate, asking : “So, who is right? Is U.S. leadership in S&T in jeopardy?”

The answer they come up with is “No”:

The United States continues to lead the world in science and technology. . .

Taken in concert, these statistics suggest that the United States is still a premier performer in S&T and grew faster in many measures of S&T prowess than did Japan and Europe. Developing nations such as China, India, and South Korea, though starting from a small base, showed rapid growth in S&T, and, if that growth continues, the United States should expect its share of world S&T output to diminish.

High growth in R&D expenditures, triadic patents, and S&E employment, combined with low unemployment of S&E workers, suggest that the United States has not been losing S&E positions to other countries through outsourcing and offshoring.

It is an interesting report and a valuable contribution to the debate. My view of the long series of claims that the U.S. is experiencing a competitiveness crisis reflect a flawed understanding of data and analysis in this area, a willingness to exploit jingoistic rhetoric for political gain, or a crass effort to boost R&D budgets based on an argument that sells well in Washington. The reality is probably a combination of all three.

But even if the U.S. is not experiencing a competitiveness crisis, complacency is not really an option. The Rand report makes a number of sensible suggestions:

* Establish a permanent commitment 􀁴􀀁 to a funded, chartered entity responsible for periodically monitoring, critically reviewing, and analyzing U.S. S&T performance and the condition of the S&E workforce.

* Facilitate the temporary and indefinite stay of foreigners who
graduated in S&E from U.S. universities . . .

* Facilitate the immigration of highly skilled labor, in particular
in S&E, to ensure that the benefits of expanded innovation,
including spillovers, accrue to the United States and to ensure
the United States remains competitive in research and innovation.

* Increase capacity to learn from science centers in Europe, Japan,
China, India, and other countries to benefit from scientific and
technological advances made elsewhere.

* Continue to improve K–12 􀁴􀀁 education in general and S&T education
in particular, as human capital is a main driver of economic
growth and well-being.

The Politics and Economics of Offshore Outsourcing

August 8th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Anyone wanting to understand the debate over outsourcing should have a look at this paper by former Bush insider Greg Mankiw and Philip Swagel:

The Politics and Economics of Offshore Outsourcing
NBER Working Paper No. 12398
Issued in July 2006
link (free to .gov and universities that subscribe to NBER, follow link titled “Information for subscribers and others expecting no-cost downloads”)

Abstract: This paper reviews the political uproar over offshore outsourcing connected with the release of the Economic Report of the President (ERP) in February 2004, examines the differing ways in which economists and non-economists talk about offshore outsourcing, and assesses the empirical evidence on the importance of offshore outsourcing in accounting for the weak labor market from 2001 to 2004. Even with important gaps in the data, the empirical literature is able to conclude that offshore outsourcing is unlikely to have accounted for a meaningful part of the job losses in the recent downturn or contributed much to the slow labor market rebound. The empirical evidence to date, while still tentative, actually suggests that increased employment in the overseas affiliates of U.S. multinationals is associated with more employment in the U.S. parent rather than less.

Be Careful What You Wish For

August 4th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Democrats on the House Science Committee have been trying to get the Technology Administration in the Department of Commerce to release a report that Congress had requested and paid for on the impact of “outsourcing” on U.S. science and technology jobs. For some unknown reason, whether hardball politics or simply incompetence, Secretary Carlos Gutierrez ignored requests for release of the study, which was to be delivered in 2004.

Finally a few weeks ago, Science Committee Democrats were able to get the report they had been seeking, and have posted excerpts on their website. What does it contain that DOC or the Administration might want to hide? Not much.

My reading of the report finds the following two statements to be the most interesting, because they are counter to claims of a looming outsourcing crisis:

The effect of offshoring on the competitiveness of the US IT services and software sector appears to be negilible . . .

The present outsourcing and offshoring trends will increase the competitiveness of the U.S. semiconductor industry in the short term . . .

So what gives? The DOC report does provide some strong counter-evidence to the claims of an outsourcing crisis presented in the NRC report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which has been used in support of a bipartisan push for more science and engineering funding in the name of competitiveness. Maybe the DOC report was being sat on so as not to provide a mixed message on competitiveness. After all, running on the issue of foreigners taking “our” jobs sounds pretty appealing. But I am skeptical about this explanation. After all, Democrats as well as Republicans like to run on the jobs issue and the DOC report doesn’t exactly help the Democrats cause (they clearly were looking for evidence that the Administration was hiding evidence of a mass exodus of jobs overseas). And surely there are also behind-the-scenes politics going on that may trump this explanation.

In any case, the Science Committee Democrats are to be applauded for wrestling the report that they paid for out of DOC. However, in the end it provides little help to their cause, and in fact contains data at odds to the recent bipartisan push on addressing U.S. competitiveness through more funding for research. It also suggests that the crisis in offshoring is not as bad as advertised, but this is a result not being told by either party.

Amar Bhidé on Getting Beyond Techno-Fetishism and Techno-Nationalism

August 2nd, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

This week’s Economist describes a study by Columbia University’s Amar Bhidé on the production of scientists and engineers, critical of the ideas of “techno-fetishism and techno-nationalism.’ According to the Economist, if Mr. Bhidé’s views are correct, “then America’s policymakers should worry more about how to keep consumers consuming than about the number of science and engineering graduates, at home or in the East.” The analysis presented by Mr. Bhidé is consistent with some of my critiques of the recent focus by the NAS, Bush Administration, and Congress on the production of more scientists and engineers as a palliative for the U.S. economy.

Here is an excerpt from the Economist article, and after that a link and excerpt from Mr. Bhidé’s paper (PDF).


New Article and Podcast

April 20th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

What does British philosopher Stephen Toulmin have in common with George Bush’s science advisor John Marburger?

My latest column for Bridges is out and is titled, “Science Policy Without Science Policy Research.” This time the folks at the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, DC have also produced a podcast, which can also be heard online. See the essay, hear the podcast, and learn the answer to the question posed above here. The entire issue of Bridges is worth your attention.

Long Live the Linear Model

April 19th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Scholars who study the role of science in society have long dismissed the so-called “linear model” of science as descriptively inaccurate and normatively undesirable. In fact, within this community, such discussions are often viewed as pretty old stuff. However, when it comes to practicing scientists and many policy makers, the knowledge of the science studies crowd seems pretty far removed.

The linear model holds that investments in basic research are necessary and sufficient to stimulate scientific advancements, motivate technology developments, and bring products and serves to the market, where society benefits. The linear model was championed in Vannevar Bush’s post-war science policy manifesto titled “Science: the Endless Frontier” and has been fundamental to modern science policy ever since. Here is a graphic I made up illustrating the linear model.

linear model.png

I am reminded almost daily at the depths to which the linear model shapes science policy, science advocacy, and science politics. Yesterday I came across an op-ed which used the linear model to argue for increased funding, at an exponential rate it seems, for health research, based on the linear model. Here is an excerpt:


An Outsourcing Urban Myth

April 19th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In today’s New York Times David Leonhardt has a column which debunks the supposed exodus of radiology work to India, finding such claims to be vastly overstated: