Monday, February 06, 2006

"We'll Just Import Them From China"

Sebastian Mallaby has a "What, Me Worry?"-type editorial in today's Post, complaining that our nation doesn't really have a problem with science education - and if it does, that we still don't have anything to worry about.
The story of Gavriel Salvendy [who has advanced post-graduate science education in China], which some might see as an omen of America's declining status, is in fact more subtle. Salvendy has long recruited star Chinese graduate students to Purdue, where he still does most of his research. Of the 18 Chinese who have completed PhDs under his supervision at the Indiana campus, 15 have stayed on in the United States.
Over five years, that's three Ph.D.'s per year who we have successfully imported from China. Yay, us?

As I see it, the problems of science education in the United States include:
  • As a society, we have a general disdain for "book learning" and even moreso for the type of person ("geek" / "nerd" / "egghead") who pursues a career in math or physical science.
  • We rely very heavily upon foreign students to round out our university rosters in the physical sciences, particularly at the graduate level.
  • We are pursuing immigration policies which make it less attractive for foreign students to pursue graduate degrees within the United States.
  • Foreign nations are increasingly able to offer their own math and science graduate students an education equivalent to or superior to that which they might receive at a U.S. college.
  • We rely upon a sizeable population of well-educated immigrants to perform scentific and engineering work for our nation's companies.
  • Foreign workers with science degrees are increasingly able to find quality work without leaving their nations of origin, or battling with the USCIS.
  • U.S. companies are finding it less important to bring foreign workers to the United States, as opposed to taking the work overseas.
Fundamentally, our nation doesn't care about science, is increasingly ignorant of basic science and math, and doesn't see the importance of improving. Given his own history of mediocrity, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Mr. Mallaby has chosen to be the spokesperson for the status quo.

Mallaby writes,
The science lobby should also stop pretending that countries compete the same way companies do. Firms such as Toyota and Ford really do go head-to-head against each other; if Toyota has superior technology, it will steal Ford's customers -- and Ford may even disappear. But if China produces Nobel-quality science, it won't put the United States out of business; rather, Chinese discoveries will help American scientists discover more, too.
Here's a neat new word for Mr. Mallaby to learn: Patent. Mallaby continues,
Equally, Toyota doesn't sell cars to Ford workers, so there's no benefit to Ford's people if Toyota's quality advances. But China does sell to Americans, so whatever makes it more productive has some upside for the United States as well.
Mallaby is mixing his metaphors. Taking a lead in science and technology provides a significant benefit not only to corporations, but also to countries. Even if Mallaby cannot grasp how the producer of the world's best software or electronic goods can provide an economic boon to the nation in which it is headquartered, perhaps he should also consider the desire of the U.S. to maintain a lead in military technology, which is an area where we can't expect nations like China to sell us their secrets. You can't count on being able to perpetually import other nation's brain power in order to remain competitive.

1 comment:

  1. Especially nations that have little interest in losing their brainiest people to us. Why would a foreign graduate stay in the US if there is a cushier job back home?

    The problem goes beyond math and science and into education, period. We don't really care about education except for the elite class, and for them it's merely a credential-gathering process to compete for elite white-collar jobs.


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