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Technology

Is "Train More Scientists" the Answer to Our Economic Woes?

Reality BaseBy Melissa LafskyMarch 27, 2009 11:52 PM

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Over at Silicon Alley Insider's Clusterstock blog, Joe Weisenthal has taken on the science establishment, slapping down the much-bandied conventional wisdom that the solution to society's ills is to throw money at science education. In his trademark cavalier style, Joe slashes and burns his way through science-related sectors, arguing that more/better scientists are not what we need. Is the underlying point fair? Absolutely—simply training more scientists in order to "solve" our economic and environmental problems is like ordaining more priests to "solve" the current marriage decline. But Joe's details get sucked into the quagmire of poor logic, to the point where a few of them border on ludicrous. Take his stance on health care:

 Given the spiraling cost of healthcare, and the fact that few people are satisfied with our system, this is obviously one of the most fertile industries for growth. But our problem isn't a lack of science. Our problem isn't that engineers haven't created enough dubious miracle pills. It's that our conception of the system is wrong. We have antiquated models for healthcare delivery on all kinds of fronts, from how it's paid for to who patients see when they get ill.

We'll be the last to say there's no room for improvement in the health care system. There are countless opportunities for improving treatment effectiveness and efficiency that don't involve just training more doctors (though we need those too, in a BIG way). Computerization of medical records, while not a simple task, will ultimately save time, money, and lives. But halting funding for drug research—particularly when we're on the cusp of some pretty remarkable new stuff—is pretty absurd. Then there's his take on education (we're assuming he means the larger education system, and not just scientific courses of study):

Our system is in shambles and has been dysfunctional for a long time. We have a huge problem of matching students up against the type of education that would suit them -- more vocational training for many of them would be good -- and for many students there's no upside in being educated. It's a gaping opportunity, but it's not a science question. It's more a matter policy and design than anything else.

Well, actually, there is an upside in properly educating our population: Not doing so leads to a disastrous, dogmatic mess that erodes the integrity of education—not to mention causes expensive and pointless ideology battles that take our attention away from problems like oh, say, the looming financial and environmental apocalypses. But the main problem with Joe's central argument is this: Science education isn't just about teaching 11th graders where dinosaurs came from (which we can't even do correctly). It's about investing in our role as a superpower. Since the second World War, the superiority of American science and technology is what has made the U.S. a world leader, with our engineering/tech/medical innovation pumping billions into the economy and establishing all that world dominance we're now so in danger of losing. If we stop valuing (and funding) research labs that house scientific innovators, and squelch scientific progress for dogmatic reasons—both of which we've been doing steadily over the past 8 years—then we risk losing that innovation to other countries—which has already begun happening. So no, the answer isn't simply to throw money at education—or at banks, or newspapers, or corn farmers. We need careful assessment of the specific issues in each science-related industry, and enactment of a variety of solutions. But education in all its forms has been, and remains, a pretty crucial cog in this wheel. Plus we really do need more doctors—unless Boomer-spawn like us want to care for all those aging parents ourselves.

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