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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

quick, get me a mathematician! get me a scientist!

On mises.org today, Lew Rockwell has this piece which takes on the ridiculous notion that there is a shortage of mathematicians and scientists in the U.S.
Why do we keep falling for this? Once in every second-term presidency, the chief executive lectures the country about the impending disaster of a shortage of mathematicians and scientists. People think: oh no, we'd better get on the stick and create some in a hurry!

Thus does the President want to spend $50 billion over 10 years — a figure these people made up out of whole cloth — and we are all supposed to submit, cough up, and turn our sons and daughters into natural-science brainiacs. And the President is just sure that his great job-training mission is not limited to Silicon Valley but extends to all cities, rural areas, and ghettos in America.

He is not only raising false hopes, diverting career paths, and wasting money, he is raising a non-problem and purporting to solve it with a non-solution. The central-planning approach to boosting science was tried and failed in every totalitarian country, and the same will be true in nominally free ones as well. Still, it seems that megalomaniacs just can't resist the urge to push the idea, which is why mathematicians and scientists leftover from Soviet days are driving cabs and tending bars in today's Russia.
The rest is well worth reading. As a Ph.D. chemist, this whole myth of the math and science shortage has always been one of my pet peeves. When I was in grad school in the late 80's and early 90's, and chemistry jobs were not that easy to come by, I couldn't understand why all these advocates who supposedly represented scientists were pushing for more people to enter the sciences. In fact, once I successfully found employment, I soon thereafter cancelled my membership in the American Chemical Society (ACS), a major reason being that they harped on and on about the alleged shortage of chemists, while recent Ph.D. grads who had no interest in acedemic careers were going on to do one and sometimes multiple postdocs because the industry jobs were just not there. (I was lucky and went straight into industry). In fact, I do believe that the only real beneficiaries of increased numbers of chemistry graduate students were the graduate schools, as it helped keep the stipend wages down and guaranteed a continuous supply of cheap labor in the labs.

I also was not a fan of the organization's self-righteous advocacy for ever-higher federal research budgets - no matter how fast the budget would increase, the ACS would bitch that it was not enough.

Only later I found out, while reading Antony Sutton, that the ACS was founded by a Skull & Bonesman. Make of that what you will. The ACS certainly peforms some useful functions and I don't mean to portray it as pure evil, but it has most definitely played a role in perpetuating the myth of the math and science shortage.

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