While I do enjoy Ted Rall’s uninhibited rants against the Bush Administration, that in no way means that he is not also a flaming idiot. In his most recent column he asserts that we are losing the science and engineering base of this country because students are realizing that engineers and scientists are social dorks (and who wants to be around them?) and because all the jobs have a moralistically repulsive military angle to them. In short, he thinks the jobs suck. Have I mentioned the term “flaming idiot” yet? He clearly has some unresolved issues on this topic.
The point we all agree on is that students are shying away from the once heavily demanded technical majors at colleges. This is producing a projected shortage of domestic engineers and scientists. Over time, this has to serve to erode the innovative technical creativity which in many ways is the bread & butter of our country’s economic success. Where we disagree is why this is happening.
People go into science-based fields for two reasons. One is the money, or at least it was. When I graduated, companies were competing over graduates. The question for us was which offer will you take, not do you have a job? That landscape has changed. A friend’s son graduated 3 years ago with a Chemical Engineering degree from a good school, and is now working a blue-collar job in a repair shop because he can’t find work in his field. Outsourcing has moved many entry-level positions overseas. And downsizing has simply removed many positions. Further, the government has all but abandoned science funding, so many of the research positions are gone as well. This means that many of the borderline geeks (defined as kids with aptitude, but not the underlying passion or compulsion for science) will opt out for other majors. And they are. I do think schools are under-preparing and under-motivating kids toward technical careers, but I’m not sure how much that matters unless we find a way to turn the jobs situation around. That’s the ultimate carrot. It’s not so much that the jobs suck as they don’t exist.
As for being boring dorks and being ethically challenged as well as illiterate, that’s a stereotypic view. Like all stereotypes, it’s not without merit, but it’s a broad net to cast on us all. Could scientists, as a lot, benefit from a more well rounded liberal arts educational foundation? Sure. The trouble is, that the science part is a heavy course load all by itself. Adding on all the liberal-arts stuff would mean that most science majors would need 6 years to get a B.S. degree. That’s probably not feasible. It also may be pointless, at least for those of us who are inexorably drawn to these sorts of fields. You see, it’s not enough to just be exposed to ideas, you have to care. And science geeks care about different things. Our passions are elsewhere.
Being a science geek is not so much a career as it is simply the way your mind works. You think about things in ways others do not. You have to know how things work, and I do mean that you “have” to, not just that you’re curious. This leads you to a different set of interests and passions than many others. This is perhaps why you find us boring dorks. If it’s any consolation, we are frequently bored senseless in your company too. We just don’t feel a need to make fun of you. But realize that anyone who is stuck in a group with dissimilar interests is likely to find that group boring.
And as for being ethically challenged, this is a source of concern for scientists as well. The cruel reality is that the toys and tools of science are expensive. The money to do the really cool stuff tends to come from the government, and in this country, the government seems most interested in funding technology which can be used to kick butt militarily. As I said above, science geeks are compelled to do this work. Having a guy say that he’ll fund your project makes most science-types do some fancy rationalization to justify why it’s okay just so you have the opportunity to do the work. (A friend who used to design torpedo guidance systems rationalized that they could be used to deliver inter-island mail.) It’s hard to resist the candy. But realize that it is the government driving the objectives here, not the scientists. Scientists would be just as happy building power sources as bombs. The underlying science is the same. And in a country where the government is allegedly “by the people”, you have to ask yourself why “the people” are so determined to build things that go BOOM!? After all, it’s pretty clear that the majority of “the people” are not the science geeks. If we were, you can bet a network called “The Learning Channel” would broadcast something other than home decorating shows.