Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wringing Our Hands About US Science--Again

The National Science Board has published it biennial assessment on the state of US science and technology. The sky, as usual, is preparing to fall, but it hasn't fallen yet.

Honest, I worry about this a lot. It's just that the amount of hand-wringing compared to the amount of action is a bit frustrating. No doubt it's frustrating for the report writers, too. So let's break it down:

  • Scientists and engineers want to live in the US. Life is just more fun here. As long as the old joke about the average male's version of heaven hell holds true (Heaven: living in America, eating Chinese food, with a Japanese wife. Hell: living in China, eating Japanese food, with an American wife.), we can expect an influx of trained scientists and engineers.

  • If their own countries were as developed as the US, scientists and engineers would rather live in their native lands, surrounded by their own culture. We've still got a ways to go before developing countries will be as nice as western countries, but things happen quickly these days.

  • The US is more hostile to foreigners these days. We're kinda isolationist by nature and would just as soon not deal with the fer'ners if we didn't have to. Add on the ridiculous homeland security rigmarole, and you definitely wind up slowing the influx of foreign tech weanies.

  • US engineering is becoming more and more process-oriented and bureaucratic. To a large extent, this is necessary--products are just too complicated and their marketing is too sophisticated to be done by 5 guys in a garage. Nevertheless, we see all the really neat ideas coming from... five guys in a garage! There's no paradox here. Developing the next killer feature can still be done by small teams. But integrating that feature into mass-marketable stuff that late adopters will actually use requires the usual Corporate Engineering Death March, with which many of us engineers are painfully familiar.

  • I imagine the same is pretty much true in Big Science. You spend a lot of time defending your existence and begging for money because it's too damned expensive to have people just indulging their curiosity. Please note that this sort of politicking and abject grovelling is hard to do if you're a foreigner. There's a lot of cultural nuance in effective sucking up.

  • US math and science is just ghastly. Old geezer that I am, I remember coming out of high school algebra I being able to solve simultaneous equations and finding roots to quadratics. Geometry actually existed. And algebra II taught you a modicum of analytic geometry and a lottrigonometry. Today, I have a son in junior college and his "college algebra" course doesn't look like it will get to trigonometry.

  • But there's hope: Kids who grow up to be scientists and engineers tend to be highly self-directed. They also learn obsessively. If you give them a decent framework and a few key facts, they will figure the rest out. This means that it's possible to teach math and science online to a large extent. Really good open courseware would go a long way towards improving math and science knowledge in the population that will actually use it later in life.

  • It's possible that the productivity pendulum is swinging back towards small teams, rather than the current corporate development juggernauts. In many disciplines, the tools are so good that a single engineer can perform work that would have required a team of ten engineers and 5 support staff ten years ago. When you couple this with the fact that the market for good ideas appears to be literally unlimited, it just may not require as many skilled techies to sustain our dominance as it used to.

Of course, a lot of these positive trends are occurring in other countries as well. But the sky isn't falling, nor is it showing more than perfunctory signs of wear and tear.

No comments: