Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance

I reckon that spending fifteen years attending and working at a university qualifies me as a former academic, even through my time in that role ended two decades ago. I went on to work at a national laboratory and supercomputer center that was funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and then eventually to Bell Laboratories. I'm living proof that you can have a pretty good career just making it up as you go along, and I got a lot of insight into the full spectrum of the research and development work experience, from academia to federally funded big science to corporate R&D.

So it was with real interest that I read Beryl Lieff Benderly's article "The Real Science Gap" in Miller-McCune magazine, published by the non-profit Miller McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. Benderly observes something I've been wondering about for some time: if we're so short of scientists and engineers, as our politicians, high-technology pundits, and industry leaders would have us believe, how come there are so many people with advanced science and engineering degrees that are under-employed or unemployed?

Benderly describes how our current system of research in the United States evolved: following World War II, the U.S. government established a system of institutes and foundations that funded universities, the universities funded researchers, post-doctorate fellows, and graduate students, and the results of their research sometimes made it into products and technologies manufactured and applied by corporate America. But over time, the entry-level jobs for newly minted Ph.D.s dried up as funding focused on those few research organizations that have been very successful, leaving them, with just a few exceptions, out of work or at best working at relatively low-wage jobs as post-doc research assistants. Benderly's article is well worth reading no matter where you are personally on the R&D employment spectrum.

Coincidentally, right after reading that article, I came across Andy Grove's article "How to Make an American Job" in the July 5/July 11 2010 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. Grove, you may recall, is an engineer who was employee #3 of Intel and went on to run the company. Grove makes a similar observation about how corporate R&D used to be the driver of the creation of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., but now is mostly stimulating job creation overseas.

His article is also worth reading, as is the rebuttal by Vivek Wadhwa, "Why Andy Grove Is Wrong About Job Growth", the gist of which is: thanks to globalization, things have changed since Intel was founded in the 1970s, and who wants those Foxconn jobs anyway?

The fact is, there is are useful nuggets of wisdom in all three articles. But rather than pontificating on them myself, I'd like to encourage you to read all three articles and see what you think.

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