Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Is this what's wrong with America?

I was listening to PBS's "Newshour" this morning when they had a discussion about public outrage over the BP oil spill and the outpouring of ideas about how to fix it. It had Bill Nye the Science Guy on it, so it had a little less of the serious air a typical "Newshour" segment might have, but this comment by Amy Jaffe, a senior energy analyst at Rice University struck me:
Even myself, who has been in the -- watching the industry and writing about industry for 30 years, I just couldn't believe that people would go out there and drill these wells, and they didn't have a backup plan. I mean, I understand they had good prevention systems, but they didn't have a backup plan.

And now we're all watching in horror over the fact that there is no backup plan. And it does raise this question — I — I like what our other guests are saying — I work at a university that's known for its math and science departments and its engineering. And it — we find it very depressing that a lot of young people who are good in mathematics in this country have chosen to use that to develop financial derivatives that have actually hurt our economy — and we see it here in Houston with all the people who rushed to work for Enron — instead of going into concrete science that could be used today to shut this pipeline.

If we had more American children sticking with math and science and going to engineering, there might just be some young bright person out there who could come up with an idea of how to do this in a way that isn't the way we did it on land 50 years ago or 100 years ago.

We really need more science capability in this country.
I was a biology major back at UCI, and I was assured told that I would have permanent job security if I went into science teaching — not because it was in such high demand (demand is a static function based on the number of students, who are required to take science classes) but because the supply of willing and able science teachers was so low.

Contrast that with the situation in places like South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, where the Gini coefficient is low (31.3, 38.1, and 33, respectively, versus 45 in the US), indicating a more equal distribution of wealth. Some would argue that creates a situation where people can move into — and be attracted by — professions that pay wildly insane amounts of money, perhaps beyond or even counter to their social value.

That is to say, South Koreans, Japanese, and Taiwanese have less of a financial disincentive to pursue science- or math-based careers. Much is made of the incentive toward creativity in the American work place (and up to a point, I agree that it is a major factor), but you can only go so far with creativity when the underlying math and science skills are missing.

The school and work situation in South Korea (and I believe in Japan and Taiwan as well) is highly competitive, with a large number of qualified people pursuing a small number of spots. While this can lead to over-qualified (or rather, underutilized) people in some lower-level service industry positions, it also means that the businesses that can offer comfort and prestige (e.g., the chaebol) are flush with very smart people, which compensates for at least some of the creativity-sapping corporate structure (where it exists).

While South Korea could dial down the hyper-competitiveness a little (or a lot), it risks going off the rails if it does so too much (or too rapidly). On the other hand, the US needs to return to an era of Sputnik fear where students with promise in math and science were revered and rewarded.

I'll step down from my soapbox now.

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