Bill Gates spoke yesterday on the status of our educational system. This was more of a rant than a speech. I’ve not seen Bill so worked up before. He might even have been a bit over the top with this comment on our educational system:
“The guys at Enron never would have done this! I mean this is so blatant, so extreme that, is anybody paying attention to what these guys do?”
I suppose it is a good thing when a guy like Gates gets involved in matters of public policy. He’s spending his own money. He has no axe to grind. But nothing is as clear as it appears. It’s not at all certain to me that Big Bucks Bill is on the right track.
Central to Gates’ educational agenda is his belief that American schools do not turn out enough scientists. That we will inevitably fall behind places like China or India as they have more scientists than we do. Bill believes that we should redouble our efforts to improve math and science education. If we do that our future as the global leader in science and technology is assured.
Actually that is not true at all. The acute problem we face is that there are too many scientists. This (long) article by Beryl Lieff Benderly tells a much different story than Mr. Gates. I few quotes from the piece:
It is not, as many believe, that the nation is producing too few scientists, but, paradoxically, just the opposite.
“There is no scientist shortage,” declares Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman.
Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, cites the “profound irony” of crying shortage — as have many business leaders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates — while scores of thousands of young Ph.D.s labor in the nation’s university labs as low-paid, temporary workers, ostensibly training for permanent faculty positions that will never exist.
I loved these words by Susan Gerbi, Chair of molecular biology at Brown University. This lady is on the top of the heap of scientists in America:
“Obviously, the “pyramid paradigm can’t continue forever,” Like any Ponzi scheme, she fears, this one will collapse when it runs out of suckers — a stage that appears to be approaching. There has been relatively little attention given to possible solutions for the scientist glut — in no small part because the scientific establishment has been busy promoting the idea that the U.S. has a shortage of science students.”
So are we creating a Ponzi scheme of scientists? Or are we critically short of scientists? I don’t really know. The evidence is pretty clear that there is a very big glut today. And there is every indication the glut will get bigger. These folks better find something “Big” to do. I see no new “cutting edge technology” that is going to suck up the supply of the underemployed scientists. We’ve already invented all the “good” stuff. Inventing more stuff that extends lives is really not all that helpful at this point.